Microsoft made Bing, its new "decision engine", publicly available yesterday with a background image of hot air balloons lifting off in the countryside on the Bing homepage.
It's a fitting image given Microsoft's desire to lift search off what it considers the ground level. In a speech last week at the unveiling of Bing, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called current search one-dimensional and said Bing will help people "find information quickly and use the information they've found to accomplish tasks."
The software giant plans to do this by categorizing results according to best match and not popularity, and also by pulling related searches and information that's buried in a site onto the results page. Microsoft vows to display more information on the page in a more organized way than the competition (i.e. Google).
But as everyone knows, Google is a dominant force in search, with a market share of 64 percent, according to comScore's April search rankings.
If Microsoft has any chance of reducing Google's reign it will be through Bing's organization of information and images on the results pages and by helping people find local restaurants, book flights, shop for a digital camera or find treatments for the flu better than Google.
Also, aggressive marketing will help. Microsoft plans to invest close to $100 million in an advertising campaign for Bing.
But what are the specific features on which Microsoft is banking its search, excuse me, "decision" future? Here are five features that Microsoft hopes will make "Bing" a household verb.
To show more information on the results page, Microsoft uses what's called an Explorer Pane in Bing. It's a navigation menu that runs down the left hand column of the page that offers different categories depending on your search. For example, if your search word is "Boston", in addition to the list of links on the main page, automated categories appear in the Explorer Pane such as Map, Tourism, Attractions, Restaurants, Weather, Images. If the search term is "Barack Obama", the categories under the Explorer Pane are Images, Biography, Family, Library, Interview, Timeline.
Underneath these so-called Quick Tabs in the Explorer Pane are subcatgories "Related Searches" and a "Search History" of your most recent search terms.
Categorized Search Results
Another feature meant to keep searches organized is Bing's categorized search results, which takes the categories from the Explorer Pane and uses them as headings to break up the search results on the center page into groups.
A search for Barack Obama returns images across the top accompanied by what Bing thinks are the most relevant links below. These links are not sorted or categorized. But the links below that are grouped into sections with the headers Barack Obama's Biography, Barack Obama's Family, Barack Obama's Library, Barack Obama's Interview, Barack Obama's Timeline. These headers a clickable and link to additional sites related to the subject.
When you hover the mouse over a small orange dot to the right of links on a results page, a box appears with a text-based summary of what's on that site. The preview box may also include links to other parts of the site or at the very least a "Go to this Page" link.
Here, Microsoft aims to speed up access to the information people want. Microsoft's research has shown that 42 percent of searches require refinement, and 25 percent of clicks are the back button.
New Video Search
The user interface for Bing's Video search has been tweaked to simplify the grouping of videos from content providers such as Hulu and YouTube.
You'll see a few differences between Bing and Google when it comes to video. One is the layout. Bing video results spread across the page while Google's run down the left side. Click a small video icon in Bing — small video icons in Bing start playing when you mouse over them. Google does not have this feature — and the video plays in full across the top of the page. Google plays full videos on the right side of the page.
Also, Bing allows you to search for videos by length, screen size, resolution, and source, which includes content providers Hulu, YouTube, ESPN, MTV and of course MSN. Google does not provide this type of search for video.
Airfare and Hotel Search
Microsoft is using its 2008 acquisition of Farecast to try to surpass Google on airfare and hotel search. Farecast provides a tool that compares airfares by using an algorithm that recommends the best time to buy tickets. The Farecast technology is integrated with Bing search results so airfare deals are displayed on the page.
Farecast also works with hotel reservations and can be used to display hotel "deals" on the page when you search for hotels in a particular city. Microsoft says Bing, using the Farecast technology, estimates the going rate of a room at a certain hotel and compares it to the price being offered to figure out if it's a deal.