English Deutsch Espanol Francais Italiano Portugues Russian Arabic Japanese Korean Simplified Chinese

Jun 3, 2009

Review: Microsoft Bing

Very Good

Sitting on a commanding 63 percent Internet search market share, Google nevertheless is being challenged all the time. Upstart Wolfram Alpha just attacked on the techie end, and now Microsoft's Bing appeals to everyday consumers. Google continues to add new capabilities, like local results and the recent Search Options sidebar; in many cases, the leader's actually playing catch-up, adding features the competition already has. Microsoft, with only 8 percent of the market, has arguably been more energetic, completely revamping its search site. Bing (previously called Live Search, and code-named Kumo for the last few months) is finally here. With Bing, Microsoft's goal is not only to finding Web pages for you, but also to help you make decisions, and to deliver useful information on the results page itself. And in many ways, it succeeds.

After using Live Search and Bing for a few months, I found that basic Web search results were comparable among all three major search engines—Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Most users won't see much difference in the search process. And lately I've been finding that a good number of searches on all three lead first to a useful result from Wikipedia. I did a ton of parallel searches to compare the engines.

In one, I searched for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's "vergatorio" cell phone, and the results were nearly identical. However, the second Google result was in Spanish, which was odd as I was signed in with my Google account, which knows my language and location. Searching for "online photo album" brought up similar results in Google and Bing, though in Yahoo there were so many ads that I could see only one result on the page. In a search for "Dead Sea Salinity," only Bing delivered the answer in the first result. (Incidentally, Wolfram Alpha returned an incorrect answer of 3.5 percent, when it's actually 35 percent.)
Buzz up!on Yahoo!

On the whole, however, all three of the big-name engines do a decent job on basic searches. So when results look pretty much the same, how can one engine stand out? Microsoft's answer has been to focus on improving other tasks people use Web searches for beyond simply finding Web pages. Like Ask.com, Microsoft wants people to get the answers they're looking for without having to click on one of the links turned up by the search engine. Bing has specifically concentrated its efforts in the areas of shopping, travel, and health. Travel, in particular, has been addressed with the acquisition and enhancement of Farecast, which can predict the best time to purchase an airline ticket for your itinerary.

Bing's most effective tool for bringing you info directly from the results page is its rollover page preview. Hovering the cursor to the right edge of any Web result brings up a small window containing text from the linked page. It can even find relevant deep links within that page. It's great for getting a peek at pages that are relevant, and for helping avoid clicking through to pages that aren't. When your mouse is anywhere on top of a result, a vertical rule shows up at its right edge to visually clue you that this preview is available. It's one of those features that you quickly get used to and come to expect. I now find myself missing it on Google search results pages.


I have to say I've become a fan of the new stunning images, usually of fascinating geographical subjects, that Bing presents on its home page each day. You can also see the last week's worth of images. The images include rollovers with links to information, photos, and videos on the subject. Note that the search box functionality is loaded before the main image, so if you're on a slow connection you don't need to wait for the background to load to start searching.

Another goal of the redesign was to get away from simply presenting a list of blue links as the results. Bing groups results in categories with subheads, and left-panel choices let you limit results to a category. Bing keeps the layout consistent, with the left-hand side panel always showing options or search refinements. Some results also have horizontal "deep links"—those that lead directly to major category pages within found sites. This leaves room for more results.

Another cool feature is the ability to "search within" a large site using a search box under the result; a specialized case of this lets you enter a FedEx or UPS tracking number right on the result page. For larger, more obvious entities, such as Best Buy, where you're really just using the search engine for navigation rather than simply typing the store's URL in the address bar, Bing yields a "Best Match" to minimize confusion. Another nice large-site touch: Bingo often puts the company's customer support phone number right in the result. Note that this works only for select major sites that Microsoft has specially indexed.

Because so many searches are simply re-searches—those the user has performed before—Bing keeps your search history in the left-hand panel visible on all result pages. And when you hit Show All, the Save and Share option becomes available. As the name suggests, this lets you save past searches to a local disk folder or a SkyDrive folder (requires a Windows Live ID), or to share it via Facebook, e-mail, or Windows Live.

Travel Search

Thanks to Microsoft's acquisition of Farecast last year, Bing integrates a heavy-duty travel-planning tool. Each day, Farecast sifts through millions of itineraries from several airline information services, and Bing draws on the resulting data. You can access this information directly via Bing's Travel left-panel option. But even if you just type something like "Denver Flights" in the regular search box, you get a "Cheap tickets" result. Further, the top result has a big arrow pointing up, diagonally, or down to indicate whether the fare is expected to rise, stay the same, or go down. Choosing a result takes you to a whole Orbitz-like travel planner page. Though the page is distractingly inconsistent with the rest of the interface layout, it lets you do cool things like view a graph showing projected prices for your itinerary over the next month.

Farecast comes in especially handy when you have a time and budget for your vacation but don't know where to go. A map view shows you fares for routes from your location based on prices and trip lengths you enter on sliders. If you can spend only $200 on your flight next week, Farecast maps out all your potential destinations. Finally, a grid view tells you the cheapest dates to fly to your destination.

When you've decided when and where, you can narrow displayed fares by airline, departure times, price range, airports, duration, and "flight quality"— for example, you can exclude red-eye flights. The fare results page also includes the arrow with the tip as to whether the price is likely to rise or fall. You can even drill into this information to see how confident Farecast is in its estimation, with a graph of the price history. Once you choose a fare, you're taken to the airline's site to buy the ticket. When I tested this, however, I was disappointed to find that my route wasn't prepopulated when I got to the Singapore Airlines site. Bing did, however, pop up a small window showing my itinerary, so it was easy to enter it into the airline site.

Bing can also search multiple travel sites—Expedia, CheapTickets, CheapAir, Priceline, and BookingBuddy (but not Orbitz, my favorite), to find more fares, but that just opens new windows to those sites—you don't get all the Farecast extras. The same subsite offers hotel pricing and travel guide-style destination info, but it doesn't search package vacation deals the way Orbitz does. In all, Bing brings a lot of powerful travel tools to the party, but you'll likely need more sites to get all the details you need for your trip. Finally, typing the number of flight that's currently in the air into Bing brings up the flight's on-time status as the first result, a cool extra.


For more localized travel needs, Bing for the most part keeps the same excellent maps that were a standout feature of Live Search. These offer the nifty "Birds-eye" view, which you can tilt around the points of the compass to get views of your target address from different angles. Google's Street view is an impressive party trick, but for more practical needs like driving directions, Bing's approach is probably more useful.

Bing Maps add a one-click option to driving directions, letting you get general directions such as "from the east" and so on, and local landmarks are included in directions ("Go left past the Outback Steakhouse"), along with tips such as "If you pass Vanderbilt Av., you've gone too far." I like directions in this more conversational style a lot more than the very stripped-down, mechanical commands—"turn right, go 1.83 miles, turn left"—you get from Google and Yahoo.

All three big search engines' maps can show live traffic along the way, and Bing's "Add a stop" feature is a welcome option to customize your route. Yahoo and Google, however, have a "click and drag" option that lets you readjust your route—a real advantage.

Images and Video

Instead of using different layouts for images and videos, as Google and Yahoo do, Bing uses the same layout for each. The side panel stays on the left, keeping the pertinent categories for the search—for example, Map, History, and Government for a search on a country name—and then related search terms. But for video, side-panel options let you refine the search by resolution, video length, and source.

The video options mean, for example, that if you're searching for a full-length TV movie in high definition, you can find it faster than you could on Google. Yahoo is even worse than Google here, with the Video and Images result pages looking completely different, though filters for duration and ordering by relevance or date are available options.

Another trick up Bing's sleeve that you won't find in Google: You can actually preview videos (that is, play them) right in the thumbnail on the results page. Google displays an arrow under the link to a video result that pops up a tooltip saying "Playable on Google Video," but clicking that arrow does nothing. When you click the result link in Google, the video plays on the right-hand side of the page, rather than opening in the original location.

In addition to video search, the Bing video home page shows categories, such as TV shows, Music videos, Most watched, News, and Sports. Google Video just shows Hot, recommended, and, for some reason, Featured on AOL (maybe that has something to do with that $1 billion Google Regretting Billion Dollar AOL Investment).

For image searches, Bing offers filters by size, layout, color or B&W, style (photo or illustration), and images with people in them. This last is even tunable to images with just faces, head and shoulders, or all. The image thumbnails stand as unadorned thumbnails in the results, but when you hover the mouse over them, they helpfully enlarge and review their source URL, size, and a choice to show similar images. I like this presentation, as it lets you concentrate on the images at first, and then drill down to details after you've located one of interest. Google by contrast clutters the results with all the details from the start. In many test searches, the relevance of the photos returned were a wash between Bing and Google.

Shopping Searches

If you search for a product, such as "Canon cameras," Bing displays links to reviews, and, in some cases, star ratings from the reviews, and thumbnail images of various models in its "Shop for …" results. When you choose that link, you can filter results by best expert or user ratings and price, as well as getting side panel access to Dealers, Repair, Accessories, Lenses, Reviews, Images, and Videos. When you click on an individual camera entry, you see the same sidebar options, along with store links stating Cashback percent.

This Cashback program was one Microsoft search feature that the tech press made fun of as a desperate attempt to get users. Through the program, online stores give discounts for buying through Microsoft's search. I'm here to tell you, I've used it, and recently got $29 deposited directly to my bank account after buying a point-and-shoot camera on eBay. True, you have to wait a couple months for the money to be available, but the program is for real.

Comparing the three big engines, searching for "HD Radio Tuner" brought me only shopping results in Bing, whereas Google offered Wikipedia, and Yahoo beat that by offering the main hdradio.com site. (Bing showed hdradio.com, but after the shopping link.)


Google is still a bit ahead of Bing in news search, despite Google News's recent outages. I've found that news stories we publish on PCMag.com regularly appear in Google news 5 to 10 minutes after they're published, while Bing takes 15 to 20 minutes for those same articles to show up. In the news section front pages, too, you can see that on Google News linked stories are often timed in single-digit minutes ago, while on Bing, they're date-stamped in hours-long intervals. But one thing I haven't seen on Bing news pages is headlines that aren't actually news. A standout example of this was when we republished our iPhone section: It was presented on Google News as a hot breaking story, when in fact it was just a revamped static landing page.

On a news topic of broader interest, I did notice that the recent California court decision upholding Proposition 8's ban on gay marriage showed up in Google News several minutes before Bing News had it.

When you type in the name of a health condition, such as asthma or diabetes, high in Bing's results will be a link to a "Bing Health Article" from a certified source, such as the Mayo Clinic. The page, hosted on Bing, provides the definition, symptoms, and—of particular importance—a "When to seek medical advice" section. A Microsoft exec told me that 45 percent of Web searchers have sought health advice via the Web, so getting reliable answers for this topic is critical. In contrast with the verified Bing Health article, a search for "asthma" in Google brought a Wikipedia result up top, and, while I'm a huge fan of Wikipedia, its user-contributed content is probably not something I want to bet my respiratory system on.

Should You Bing?

Bing brings a lot of powerful new tools to Web search, and I do think it's time for search to be more than ten blue links. Search leader Google has made some improvements in this regard. The service's recently added abilities to sort search results by date and filter them to display only reviews or forums are welcome advances, but the options aren't a default part of the interface, as they are in Bing. All too often, Google still delivers those same old ten blue links. I have to say that Bing's interface is better than Google's, and results are cleaner and better organized. I also like the extras Bing brings—the travel and shopping helpers—and its maps are just as good as the competition's.

Google still aggregates news faster, and likely indexes more of the Web more quickly. But for the vast majority of users the advantage is negligible. Bing's better-organized results displays and its many helpers that take search beyond ten blue links make it a strong contender for our Editors' Choice for Web search, pending updated reviews of the competition. It can't be denied that Google has a lot of wonderful technology that has led to its imposing lead in the search field. But I'm confident that the average Internet user will find Bing at least an equally helpful Internet assistant. Whatever happens in terms of market share, it's clear that Bing could, at the very least, provide some much-needed competition in Web search.

Add this post:
  • Agregar a Technorati
  • Agregar a Del.icio.us
  • Agregar a DiggIt!
  • Agregar a Yahoo!
  • Agregar a Google
  • Agregar a Meneame
  • Agregar a Furl
  • Agregar a Reddit
  • Agregar a Magnolia
  • Agregar a Blinklist
  • Agregar a Blogmarks