Microsoft Bing: Much better than expected

A test drive of the new Bing search engine reveals a solid and enjoyable product.

Microsoft on Thursday took the wraps off Bing , the rebranded and rebuilt search engine formerly code-named Kumo , designed to replace Live Search. It's a solid improvement over the previous search product, and it beats Google in important areas. It will help Microsoft gain share in the search business. It's surprisingly competitive with Google.

Bing isn't available to the public yet, but you won't have to wait long. Starting on June 1, some users will get Bing search results from Live Search. On June 3, we're told, Bing will be Microsoft's new default search. We got early access to the service. Here's how it looks.

Hands on

In search presentation, Bing wins. It uses technology from Powerset (a search technology company Microsoft acquired ) to display refined versions of your query down the left side of the page. For example, I searched for the game "Fallout 3" on Google and Bing. While Google gave me good results, Bing gave me a menu of "related searches," that included Walkthrough, News, and so on.

Bing (previously Kumo, shown here) shows a useful "Related Searches" box. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Bing also pop ups an excerpt of the text on a search result if you hover over it. This saves a lot of time if you're not quite sure if you want to follow a result.

In the content of search results, Bing is not consistently superior to Google. In many searches I did (not the sample searches Microsoft sent me), the Google results were more relevant and useful. Not by miles, mind you, but in many cases Google delivered the goods just enough better than Bing to make me question the wisdom of adopting Bing as a replacement search engine. Just one example: Searching for "Best house paint for humid climates" gave me better advice links at the top of the search results with Google than with Bing.

When searching for product reviews, Google's search result pages were mostly better than Bing's -- although, again, not by a lot. However, Bing also collates user and expert reviews on many products, and this gives you a great overview. This feature doesn't always show up, though; and I wouldn't even have known about it had it not been for the Wired review of Bing.

When you want to shop for an item, both services have very strong "shopping" tabs that organize results well. Google gives you seller ratings, which Bing doesn't. But Bing offers a cashback program, which is hard to beat.

And in some searches, Bing won on results outright. When searching for "Facebook sandberg" on Google, the top link was a story from 2008. On Bing, the top item was "News about facebook sandberg" with three sublinks to very recent articles. When searching for "Obama Supreme Court," Google did show news results, but the top link was a day-old story. Bing's was from 32 minutes ago.

To be fair to Google, you can also click through to Google News on any result and sort results by date. But that's extra clicks. Bing is more aggressive about including news.

All search engines have their strengths, and many of Bing's lie in areas where Microsoft has its own content companies. For example, Microsoft owns the airfare prediction service Farecast, and it includes Farecast buying advice whenever you search for airplane travel. Bing also displays some medical data inside the search engine itself.

Bing also does very well in at least one area where Google should do better. The video search result page for "Thomas Jefferson" in Google gives you a vertical list of videos. On Bing, you get a big grid that's easier to scan, and a list of related videos on the left for "George Washington," "James Madison," and so on. The search results are about equivalent, but Bing's presentation is far superior.

Bing does a better job with YouTube than Google. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

You should use Bing

I planned to write this story with the headline, "Bing isn't Better," but the new engine won me over.

The new game in search is parsing information and displaying it in the engine itself (see Wolfram Alpha for the extreme example of this). Both Google and Bing, and other search products, have areas where they will collate and format information for you, instead of just linking you to external pages where the data reside. Bing does an extremely good job at this in several popular areas -- like product reviews, movie listings, weather, travel, and stock prices.

While the service doesn't reveal all its riches at once, it rewards exploration and yields pleasant surprises to users who poke around.

Google keeps improving in the area of in-search collation and display as well, but Bing makes Google look complacent, and that's not good for Google. For the moment, Bing's on top in this game. Try this search engine. I do not think you will regret it.

 

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