Long have search engines followed the same formula: a dull, white search box surrounded by a dull, white or gray background. Google, the world’s most popular search engine, is synonymous with this minimalist color scheme, but it’s been mimicked by a slew of competing services, though some include news and other text around the search box: Baidu, Yahoo, AOL, Ask. For a task we spend so much time doing online–search–the process and interaction have been decidedly minimalist (by design, Google would say).
That is, until Bing launched and rethought how search could be presented to its users. Microsoft’s search engine, which has steadily gained market share over the years, has stood out from the crowd by featuring beautiful, high-res imagery on its homepage to attract usership and clicks. But now, Bing takes that design one step further by introducing 360-degree panoramas that enable users to interact with its backdrop by dragging it around in all angles. It’s a novelty, sure, but a surprisingly refreshing approach to the search homepage given how stale the look and feel of competing engines have become.
Now, on Bing, users will see an endless blue sky framed by a mossy bed of trees. The panoramic scene from Germany’s Saxon Switzerland national park is designed to boost engagement and inspire more searches, via hot spots, small contextual overlays that offer users search suggestions based on the background. (For example: Why is Saxon Switzerland national park in Germany?) Expect Bing to feature more stunning panoramas in the coming future, even more so now because so many people are searching on smartphones and tablets. “We’re trying to encourage people to play with Bing, especially now that so many people use touch devices to search,” says Stephanie Horstmanshof, Bing’s senior managing editor.
But rather than simply a new fun feature, Bing’s panoramic backgrounds are another sign of the growing war of creativity between Microsoft and Google. In the ongoing battle between Bing and Google for your search queries, the two companies have engaged in a quirky feature tit-for-tat. Google, with its unconventional Doodles, has made headlines and increased visits for their immersive experiences: say, when Google transformed its logo into an interactive guitar in commemoration of musician Les Paul, or when the company create a field-and-track game to celebrate the opening of the 2012 Olympics. Of the panoramas, Horstmanshof says, “We’re looking at it as another tool in our tool-belt.”
The reason? The fun features attract users. “It brings a lot of people to the page,” says Horstmanshof. “We get a lot of people writing in to say, ‘Hey, I started coming for the photos, but now I’m searching here too.'” Google, too, has seen success via its Doodles: a Pac-Man game it introduced on its homepage was said to cost the world $100 million in lost productivity, based on how much time users were spending on Google’s search page.
Asked if Bing has now taken the lead against Google Doodles, Horstmanshof says, “They do what they do, and it’s great, and some of the stuff is really clever. But ours is every day, and it’s just a different thing: It’s beautiful and it’s showing you the real world.”
[Image: Flickr user Muzaffar Bukhari]