Bing vs. Google: Can Microsoft compete with the search titan?

Microsoft would prefer you to call Bing a 'decision' engine instead of a search engine. But is it really that different from Google?

So Microsoft has launched its Bing "decision" engine a few days early, heading off chatter that this would be yet another Microsoft product that doesn't meet its deadline. The oddly named Bing is an attempt to rebrand and resuscitate Microsoft Live Search, and according to Microsoft's PR push, it's a new way to think about online searches: It aims to help people search more intelligently and get the specific information they need to make decisions, hence the label of "decision" engine.

But is all of this just so much spin? There's one way to find out: Compare search results on Bing with those of the reigning champion of online search, Google. Fortunately, SEO specialist Paul Savage has created a tool that lets you compare Google and Bing side by side, so a comparison really is just a click away.

[ Robert X. Cringely was initially less than convinced that Bing can revive Microsoft Live Search, but he also points out that early reviews have been positive. ]

Two Bing features jump out right away: the search history listing and the related searches suggestion in the left column. Search history would certainly come in handy when you're trying term after term and don't want to repeat yourself, and the related searches are indeed helpful when it comes to narrowing your search down from broad to specific terms. That is in line with the "intelligent search/decision engine" angle.

There's also a feature called hover, which gives users a small summary of page when they, well, hover their cursor over the right-hand edge of a link. This is a nice touch that could save users from clicking useless links.

As for the search results themselves, my informal testing of a wide range of search terms, from enterprise IT topics to pop culture fluff, found that Bing and Google results are similar, though not always congruent. Wikipedia rules the roost at Bing much as it does with Google, typically appearing in the top three results, if not the No. 1 slot. After the top few results, though, the two engines will sometimes serve up different results but, in my experience, provide essentially the same results more often than not (though this could change over time as Bing's algorithms get more strenuous workouts).

For example, I searched for the title of one of my favorite short stories, "The Garden of the Forking Paths." Both engines returned nearly identical results, albeit in a different order. Bing's related search suggestions were for "Summary Garden of the Forking Paths" and "Analysis Garden of the Forking Paths," both logical suggestions for somebody who wants to proceed from general information about the story -- or perhaps just wants to find the story online -- to more detailed examinations of it. With search results for the two engines being so similar for the moment, the related search suggestion feature could be the real differentiator between Bing and Google.

Of course, this is highly unscientific testing, and there will likely be plenty of tweaks to Bing in the future, but at the moment, it has at least closed the results-quality gap that had existed between Google and Microsoft Live Search. That's a good start, but it'll take an even stronger showing to unseat a giant like Google.

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