Microsoft Bing’s focus on decisions is smart — but not a Google killer

Microsoft BingApologies for the long title, but I wanted to get one thing across before diving into my review of Microsoft’s new search engine Bing. (The site was announced on Thursday at the All Things Digital conference and will be available June 3rd. I was given a pre-launch briefing and have had access to a preview site.)

Bing is not a Google killer. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, I think Microsoft is taking a pretty darn smart move by focusing on being a “decision engine”. Here’s why.

Bing’s goal is to improve the search experience, and it does that well overall in an incremental way, but especially in four key categories – shopping, travel, local, and health — by tailoring the experience to specific goals associated with those categories. Why these categories? Well, they are the ones that generate the most concentrated revenues from advertising, the ones where people need to make complex, multi-step decisions every day.

So Microsoft doesn’t want to beat Google in terms of displacing it from it’s lofty 70% dominant share of US searches. Rather, Microsoft is out to win more users in the most lucrative categories where advertisers want to influence decision making. This is a focused strategy, and a smart one for (distant) #3 player Microsoft to pursue not only against formidable general search players but also vertical leaders like Yelp and Kayak. Thus, the nickname floating around that Bing stands for “Bing Is Not Google” is apt because Microsoft has a very healthy understanding that it is not trying to beat Google at its game, but rather, winning in specific categories.

If Microsoft can convince a small portion of its loyal users (think of all the people using Hotmail or Windows Live Messenger) to use Bing for specific decisions and tasks, it will be making inroads where it matters most — making money. So forget about the debate of Bing versus Google – it’s the wrong question to be asking. A better question is whether Bing is succeeding in its mission to gain a greater share of decisions made in these four areas.

The Four Key Categories

I’ve been playing with Bing for almost a week and while it won’t replace Google as my default search engine (I love using the Google search that’s built into the Google Chrome browser navigation bar) there are some instances where I will make an effort to navigate over to Bing. This is not about beating Google and Yahoo!, but exploiting an opportunity where the traditional 10 blue links on a page falls short.

Shopping.

The most obvious one is shopping. Here are the steps I took recently to replace my coffee maker

  1. Do a Google search to figure out what current model most closely resembles my broken coffee maker.
  2. Look for reviews to see if the options are any good. Go to Amazon, epinions, and coffeegeek.
  3. Go back to Google search to find places that sells the models I’m considering.
  4. Identify a few stores, open up another tab and do a search for “coupon codes” for those stores.
  5. Plug in the coupons into each of the stores to see what combination of price, discounts, and shipping is the lowest price.

And all that for a coffee maker! I exaggerate as I know that most people won’t do this for a kitchen appliance — but they would for a flat screen TV. But I think you get the point that online shopping is a painful, multi-step process fraught with missteps and hard to keep track of.

Microsoft BingBing integrates many of these steps, in particular bringing in detailed reviews and discounts. My favorite feature by far is the aggregated reviews from across different sites — and when available, an aggregation of feature ratings. I’ve included a screenshot of these featured ratings for a Sony LCD TV. The bars on the left side are an aggregation of the detailed reviews from sites like CNET, epinions and ciao.com. Some very cool algorithms pull the reviews, get the details and norm them across sites.

bing03Another tab on the same product page allows me to compare prices by store, if free shipping is offered, and the percent “cashback” being offered by the merchant because you searched for the product on Bing. (The cashback program already exists on Live.com, but not in a comparison chart like this.) My only pet peeve is that I still needed to have a calculator handy to figure out what the actual price was, rather than Bing just calculating it for me.

Local.

Microsoft BingBing’s local search engine leverages the same computational firepower used in Shopping to aggregate reviews and norm detailed feature rankings like service and food quality for restaurants. In my quest for good sushi in San Diego, I found RA Sushi with 186 reviews from CitySearch, Judy’s Book, and Yelp.com. On the right of the page are “1-click directions”. Microsoft realized that most people know how to get to a major highway, so directions are available for “Driving from the north”, removing the need to click and enter your starting address.

I currently do most of my local searching in either Google Maps or Yelp. I’m definitely going to be using Bing’s local search to decide where to go out for a date night dinner, meaning that Yelp is probably going to lose out the most in this area.

Travel.

bing05Bing’s flight fare search reminded me very much of Kayak, my favorite travel search engine. In fact, it feels like an exact copy except for one major improvement — the integration of Farecast, which Microsoft acquired a year ago. This feature is actually already available on the Farecast site, but Bing improves on it by also automatically searching for hotels in the destination city.

Microsoft BingIn the hotels search, I’m given some information about how the current list price
compares to historical list prices, giving me confidence that the price I’m getting is fair.

They key benefit of Bing Travel is that I get more information on whether I am getting a good deal or not, giving me greater confidence on when I should be timing my purchases.

Health.

Microsoft BingLastly, Bing does some nice semantic work for key health terms. They licensed content from leading health sites like Mayo clinic to provide information right in the search results.

Microsoft BingIn addition, the rest of the search results are categorized into specific topics. In my search for “insomnia”, the results are grouped into “Causes Insomnia”, “Insomnia symptoms”, “Insomnia treatment”, and so on. This is a much better experience compared to trying to figure out what lies behind each blue link.

While this is definitely an improvement, it doesn’t go as far as specialized search engines like Kosmix. I’ve included a screenshot here of the same search for “insomnia“.

Microsoft BingNot only does Kosmix do a good job of categorizing different topics about insomnia, it also integrates on to the same page news stories, general Web search, images, videos, and even Tweets!

But still, given that Bing is a positioned as a general search engine, the new health results are a definite improvement.

Other changes

Microsoft BingTwo other improvements stood out for me. The first is a “hover” technology that allows you to preview a page. Ask has had this feature for a while, and it’s very nice to see it integrated into Bing.

Microsoft BingThe other main feature is “Best Match” which takes commonly used search terms like “UPS” and returns not just UPS.com as the top result, but also hides other Web results. This happens for only a few hundred terms that Microsoft saw people using as navigation rather than search.

But the key feature that I love is that the most commonly used functions on the destination site are embedded into the search results. For example, the UPS search yielded the top navigational links on UPS.com like Locator and Tracking. But it also features the customer service number (!) and a “Track a package” search box.

It is this focus on what I call “reading my mind” that most impresses me about Bing. Is it revolutionary, groundbreaking technology like WolframAlpha? No. Life changing? Far from it. But in it’s incremental advances, Bing makes the decisions in my life easier. And I’ll take that any day versus the next supposed “Google killer”.

Comments

  1. >Bing is not a Google killer.
    Absolutely no one, most of all MS, ever said it was.

  2. With something like this …. lets see if MS can get some of Googles market. But this Bing seems fantastic! but i can never kill the great G!

  3. Great write-up. I’ve been playing around with some of the features as well, though I think it bears noting that some of the Shopping and Local features you mentioned do already exist on Google Products (formerly Froogle) and Google Maps.

  4. Yes, this is really exciting. Les’s wait for it:) I also focus on this news, you can read it:
    http://www.bloginfor.com/2009/05/microsoft-to-launch-new-decision-and-answer-search-engine-bing-next-week/

  5. Just wanted to say a big huge CONGRATS on the book! I look forward to reading it, and I love your blog and your column. Can’t wait for the new blog

  6. Always learn something new when I drop by here. Thanks for the analysis devoid of hype – refreshing!

  7. Excellent article. I have immense respect for MSFT because how it has played its card in business world. They are not foolish enough to compete with Google and fight on in Google’s turf. You have very succintly described what MSFT was thinking with Bing. Ofcourse they are chasing ad revenues, and they are chasing ad revenues in specific areas.