Microsoft's latest search innovation has been switched on in the UK today and I've been having a play around with Bing to see if it does what is promised.
When it finally unveiled Bing last week - code-named Kumo - Microsoft described the online application as a "decision engine", rather than search engine, which has been developed to help users "make faster, more informed decisions". The search tool will initially focus on four key vertical areas, according to Microsoft: shopping online, travel arrangements, medical information and a local business search.
I tested each of these four areas, all set to only look at pages from the UK.
I ran a search for 'flights to crete' to test the travel component and found the results were very similar to those returned by Google. I liked the information boxes that popped up alongside the Bing results to give extra detail on each of the sites being linked to.
However, Google scored an extra point in the sponsored links section, where its top three results were Thomas Cook, EasyJet and Flydeals, all sites I'm familiar with. Bing's top three sponsored links were for Flydeals, Directline Holidays and an aggregator site called iReviewed, which includes links to lots of other travel web sites, surely a service Bing is supposed to be offering anyway? EasyJet doesn't appear anywhere on the first page of results, even though it's one of the most competitive airlines for direct flights between London and Crete.
To test the medical information section, I ran a search for 'root canal' as it's an area close to my heart at present as unfortunately I have to go for dental treatment soon.
Again I found the Bing pop-up information boxes really helpful, giving a much better idea of what the site will contain rather than having to click through to each search result. But Google had a better mix of results overall.
Bing's results were a series of standard web site links, with Cosmetic Dentistry Guide as the top result, and the top sponsored link was a dental and healthcare insurance provider. On Google, the top result was the British Dental Health Foundation, while the top sponsored link was for an emergency dentist, again just edging Microsoft on the relevance and usefulness of the results. And the fourth result on the Google front page was for root canal images, with four pictures helpfully displaying exactly what treatment involves, not for the squeamish like me but a useful feature of search results.
Carrying on the dental theme, I ran a search for 'dentist e11' to test out the local business search feature. In this category, Google beat Microsoft hands down. Clicking the link at the top of the Bing search results for 'top local listings for dentist near E11' took me through to a separate page full of links to dentists located in either the E1 or EC2M areas of London, miles away from me. The main page of search results included links to dentists in other areas of East London, and a site for salaried dentists, while the sponsored links had also got mixed up with the number of '1's in my postcode and were instead focused on the E111 European health insurance programme.
Google fared much better, listing several dentists all within walking distance of my house right at the top of the page, along with their phone numbers and a map showing their location.
Microsoft was also shown up by Google in its online shopping provisions. I ran a search across both search engines for 'Netbooks'. Although I thought Bing, which is powered by the Ciao shopping comparison tool Microsoft acquired last year, returned a better mix of results with netbooks from a wider range of vendors on display on the first page, the presentation was a real letdown.
The top section of the page contained a lot of white space and a bare-looking list of sponsored links, with many of the results missing either pictures or any pricing information, instead providing an 'Offers by Ebay' link. In terms of price comparison functionality, the Asus EEE PC 901 had the biggest number of retailers selling the same product. According to the results front page, the netbook was available at nine online stores with prices ranging from an incredibly cheap £39.13 through to a more realistic-sounding £335.12.
However, when I clicked on the 'Compare prices' button, it turned out several of the results were duplicated and there were only six different retailers in the list. Meanwhile, the bargain £39.13 price tag was actually for a laptop battery and the most expensive product was only £272.99 not £335.12 as listed on the front page.
Google returned a smaller selection of netbooks and vendors on its first page of results, but it kept the sponsored links to the right-hand side of the results. Presentation was much cleaner, and Google included pricing details and an image for each result.
So while Microsoft has made a big song and dance of the fact that Bing isn't just any old search engine and has moved to distance itself from Google et al, the decision to brand Bing as a 'decision engine' seems to have backfired on the firm. My early tests instead serve to highlight how Google has moved on from being a provider of links to a provider of relevant, location-based, contextual information, and how Bing appears to sit much more comfortably under the traditional definition of a search engine. I'm sure Microsoft would be quick to point out this is only a beta version, but it faces a steep climb to reach Google's level, let alone surpass its rival.
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