Is Bing worth a fling?

Early reviews for Microsoft's latest sea -- er, decision engine are surprisingly positive. Who knows? Bing could be the real thing.

When it comes to search, Microsoft has been like the Ty-D-Bol Man, stuck in a leaky rowboat with the Smurf-blue waters rising on all sides. It's desperately hoping that Bing, the newly reincarnated version of Live Search unveiled by Steve "The Mad" Ballmer at this week's All Things D confab, will toss the company a lifeline.

Yeah, well, maybe. But before we get into that, let's get a few things straight.

[ Previously in Notes from the Field: "Microsoft hopes Bing's the thing to revive Live Search" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

First, it's not a search engine, it's a "decision engine." Got it? Good. That distinction is apparently important. Why, I'm not exactly sure.

Also: Your fingers aren't actually fingers, they're individualized keyboard activators. And your eyes? Binocular sensory input devices.

By and large, the cynical journos on hand for Ballmer's dog and pony show seem to be giving Bing a tentative thumbs-up (or, if you will, northerly directed opposable digits). Then again, most of those people are basing their thumbage entirely on the demo.

Note: All Microsoft products look good in the demo, except when they crash in the middle of one.

Search Engine Land's Greg Sterling, one of a handful of tech-journos allowed to put his grimy fingers on the actual search decision engine, performed an extensive side-by-side comparison between Bing and Google.

His first test? To search for "Bing," of course. Google dutifully served up news results about its putative rival, whereas Bing seemed more interested in the singer Crosby and basketball-legend-turned-mayor Dave Bing. Otherwise, though, Bing handled itself well and even surpassed Google in Sterling's estimation, especially when it came to searches for travel, food, and films. He writes:

Bing... has performed well and I’ve been satisfied with the results. There haven’t been any significant deficiencies or missing links (so to speak). While there have been a few occasions where I’ve found Google results to be better, the substantial gap that existed between Google and Live Search is largely gone with Bing.

On the other hand, Sterling says he's not about to ditch Google any time soon. But he says he may actually use Bing without holding his nose (unlike Live Search, which was like trying to defuse a stink bomb).

Wired's Ryan Singel and Cnet's Rafe Needleman, neither one of whom is known to get giddy over tech, also gave Bing a qualified seal of approval. Like Sterling, Singel says Bing is a lot better than Live Search but not exactly a Google replacement.

But the service is far from perfect. Beautiful data mash-ups coexist side-by-side with perplexing interface choices that make it hard to find the best features. Meanwhile, actual search results were inaccurate in some cases, and disappointing overall in the local search category, one of the areas Microsoft hopes to make its biggest splash.

Rafe's overall conclusion? "Much better than expected."

See, this is what happens when you spend 25 years lowering peoples' expectations. Something that merely works as advertised is considered a breakthrough. Yet another brilliant marketing ploy by those renegades from Redmond.

I know what you're thinking. What's the catch? Well, this may be the catch. As PC World's Tom Spring notes of Bing's Quick Tabs feature:

... often steered me to Microsoft services such as Bing Shopping, Bing Travel, MSN Autos, and Bing health information. It may be that those Bing sites offer the best content, but I get suspicious of any search engine that habitually gives its own links precedence over others'.

Hey listen. I'm looking forward to giving Bing a spin myself, once they get around to letting second-class citizens like me in the door (that's supposed to happen next Wednesday, June 3). I'd be happy to add a new search decision tool to my quiver of Web arrows, even if it comes with an MSFT logo.

Just remember, it's not a Google killer, it's a Google loofah sponge -- designed to gently exfoliate while enhancing your online decision making. Just don't use it in the shower.

Does Bing sing? I'm interested to hear what you think once the service opens its doors to the rabble. Post your thoughts below or e-mail me:

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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