Last May Ballmer announced a new rebranding for Microsoft’s search engine. What was once MSN Search and Windows Live, is now Bing. Probably named for the availability for purchase of the non-offensive, semi-sensical, 4 letter domain, Bing is a lot more than just a mere marketing move. Last month I took it upon myself to give this new search initiative a fair chance by using it for a month straight. Here’s my findings.
The practical switch was much easier than the psychological switch. I set the home page and default search engine to Bing and with a couple of clicks I was set. Nevertheless Google has been my unthinking default since the late 90s. Opening a browser window and seeing something other than the multicolored logo and search box, over a white background felt weird for the first week. The Bing homepage is a testament to good content presentation. Most of the screen is dominated by a large, high-res image of some usually random, interesting thing. Today it was a hanging monastery in China and it changes daily. Directly below it is a footer with links related to the main image followed by breaking news and trending topics. To the left are links to the now traditional image, video, shopping, news, maps and travel searches, directly under the Bing logo and search box. There’s a bunch of other navigation pieces but they’re all well tucked-away in their respective areas.
First thing I noticed after the switch is that I seldom use search engines. I’ve been on the internet so long that I usually know exactly where to go for most pieces of information, leaving the search box as a last resort when my usual sources fail me (they usually don’t). The times I did have to rely on Bing for finding information it shone very brightly. The search results screen innovates very little but in case you need it there’s tons more meta-data about your search than a Google result usually brings. Searching the Beatles for example produced the same basic set of results: beatles.com, the Beatles Wikipedia entry, lyrics, fan pages, etc. Bing’s results were organized with subsections such as Beatles Songs, Beatles Lyrics, Beatles Albums, etc. Each sub-category was represented on a new navigation in the left side column over related searches and my recent search history. Each result entry had additional hover-over functionality with content preview and some links from the site’s internal navigation. Images were displayed on top of the main results and video results at the bottom of the page.
Microsoft is evidently putting a lot of importance into making this the best search solution. Every results page comes with a feedback button locked to the bottom right of the window where you can rate and comment the results of your search as well as the general Bing experience. The entire experience is very dynamic, ajaxy and generally Web 2.0. Everything that can be done asynchronously is done asynchronously. Hover over an image and a larger preview image comes up as a tooltip with some of the image’s metadata, it’s source, a feedback link and a similar images link (this feature works particularly well). Hover over a video thumb and a preview starts playing right there with sound and all. All searches can be refined. Images can be refined by size, proportions, color, style, and people. This last refinement is particularly cool as it lets you search for faces, upper body or images with no people at all. These tools are very powerful letting a user find some very specific results with just a few clicks, like this page that includes only Wallpaper sized images of red Ferraris on plain backgrounds. Sure, the further you go down the more blue and black Ferraris slip in as well as other backdrops, but the first couple dozen images fit my search perfectly and most of the times you just need one good red Ferrari.
My relationship with Google as my homepage has been long and fruitful, but I think I’ve finally found a real contender for this space. I’m going to stick with Bing for the foreseeable future and I’m glad that I decided to give it a chance. It’s about time Microsoft put some real effort into it’s search division. True, it copies all the best that Google has to offer, but copying the competition is nothing new for Microsoft, and at least this time they’ve managed to provide a better product with considerable differences that really put it a good couple of feet ahead of the pack.