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Monday, October 07, 2013

Microsoft Bings on a challenge to Google in search

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

It's Microsoft vs Google in search: Bing is vastly improved, but Google, well, out Googles it.

VENICE BEACH, Calif. — Microsoft has its work cut out for it with its provocative "Bing It On" search challenge.

Say this three times to a co-worker, and gauge the reaction: "People prefer Bing over Google for the Web's top searches." Skeptical, most likely.

The words are Microsoft's tag line in a marketing campaign for Bing, the No. 2 search engine after Google.

Google had 67% market share in July, compared with 18% for Bing, according to measurement firm ComScore Media Metrix. But its influence is growing: Bing now provides search results made with the Siri digital assistant on Apple's iPhone and iPad, and provides search for Facebook and Yahoo.

Meanwhile, Google recently celebrated its 15th birthday by announcing refinements in its search engine, so we staged our own "Bing It On" test and took a deep dive into search-land.

First, the bottom line: Bing is way, way better than you might think, vastly improved since its 2009 launch. It's a very respectable second opinion, and if you were forced to only use Bing for searches, you'd be well served.

But Google is, well, Google — home of the driverless car, Internet-connected glasses and very simply, the greatest search engine ever. It is not just a way of life for most computer users, it is also — at least for this columnist — far ahead of Microsoft, especially in mobile.

Both Google and Bing get the majority of their results from links — the more folks point to an article or website, the more likely it is to be at the top of results. Both tap into the vast array of online databases — Wikipedia, IMDb, YouTube, Amazon and elsewhere — to add additional information.

Google's newly enhanced results also look at what it calls the "Knowledge Graph," a massive database with 570 million items, connected 18 billion ways, according to Google.

The results understand questions — "What time is it in Tokyo?" — and conversations that begin with a question and continue with follow-up queries you can ask in shorthand.

For instance, we asked Google to show us photos of the Eiffel Tower, and continued with "What year was it built?" and "Where is it?"

Google got all three on the money.

It can now do comparisons — "What's the difference between olive oil and butter?" — and show the calories, carbs and total fat for each.

Additionally, the Knowledge Graph pulls from your various Google tools, as long as you're signed into Google.

You may or may not like this, depending upon how much personal information you want Google to have. But once you're signed in, Google can pull from your Gmail, Google+ social network, Picasa photo library and more.

In our tests, we asked Google to yank "my sunset photos" (from G+) and find my upcoming flight to New York (from Gmail), and both worked spot on.

In past USA TODAY pieces about Google search, we've heard from readers who were uncomfortable having Google know even more about them. They found Bing to be less intrusive.

Reader Rich Steinberg, a Bing user, said "I avoid using Google as much as possible. I don't trust them at all."

Reader Mark Jenkins said he switched to Bing, because he didn't like how Google tries to jump-start his queries by offering responses before he's finished typing the question. "Bing makes suggestions but does not start something until I say go."

Here by the beach, most consumers we spoke with were die-hard Google users.

"I only use Google," said Jenny Cameron, from Bakersfield, Calif. "It's my default."

Angela Stephens, visiting from Georgia, switches immediately back to Google when Bing shows up on her computer. "I never use Bing," she says.

But Gwen Speas of Oregon does. Her Bing search is part of her MSN home page, and she likes it. "I use Bing, but I say Google," she says. "I'm actually Binging."

Beyond the "Bing It On," campaign, Microsoft is working hard to woo users from Google by paying them. The Bing "Rewards" program distributes retail discounts and freebies, similar to a frequent-flier program. A massive Bing searcher (every two searches is worth a point) could get a free Redbox DVD rental (110 points), $25 off an Expedia flight (250 points) or a $5 Starbucks card (525 points).


Google suggested we try the searches on mobile, where voice-activated search has gotten much attention from the company. The results — from flights, photos, olive oil vs. butter and a query about how many calories there are in a grape — handily beat Apple's Siri in speed and relevance.

Bing's app (on iOS, Android and Windows Phone,) paled in comparison:

• The Eiffel Tower query: Bing showed hotels near Eiffel Tower and a Wikipedia article about its history.

• "Show me my sunset photos." Results: Online sunset pictures.

On the plus side, when we asked Google and Bing a trick question — "How old is Punky Brewster?" — " Bing got it right, and Google didn't.

(Bing responded with the age of the actress who played Punky on the 1980s sitcom — Soleil Moon Frye — while Google responded with a link to a Wikipedia entry for the TV show as the top result.

So, it's great that Microsoft is spending lots of money and energy on improving its search results. No one wants to live in a world where Google's results are the only option.

While the company clearly overreached in claiming that people prefer Bing to Google (just look at the market-share data) Bing has morphed into a fine search engine.

Complaints about Google search largely have to do with privacy. Maybe you don't want Google to know what you're thinking, or fish through your e-mails and pull up your flight info, or give you search results before you've even finished typing.

That said, if it's basic information you're looking for, you want it to be fast and accurate, and are willing to surrender parts of your life to Google, well, it's still far and away the best game in town.