In the marketing world, the Holy Grail is when your brand name gets so popular it turns into the generic name for a product. A famous example: “Kleenex,” which became the generic term for any kind of a paper tissue. Today, almost everyone who searches the Web says “I’ll Google that.” You can’t buy that kind of brand equity.
That’s a real victory for Google, but it isn’t necessarily a good thing for you. There are search alternatives. Microsoft’s Bing, for example.
Why should you care? Two reasons: One, Bing has improved a lot in recent days and actually has some features you might like, and; two, competition in the marketplace is a very good thing. It keeps companies on their toes and makes them quicker to improve products. As Microsoft’s antics proved back in the 1990s, and as some of Google’s recent privacy peccadilloes show, when one player gets too big and too dominant, abuses often follow.
I write frequently about tweaks and improvements to Google’s search engine, and I rarely knock it. But Bing made some notable improvements lately, and I’m impressed.
First of all, the Bing home page is beautiful. It has a large colorful photo that occasionally changes, a photo gallery linking to trending searches, and a “search history” feature that shows your most recent queries along with links to a whole page of recent searches. And you can quickly can clear your search history or tell Bing not to keep it at all.
A new feature you see on the home page, called Page Zero, attempts to resolve a query while you’re typing it, by displaying links, information and actions on the fly before the results appear. I tested this by doing a search for “San Francisco Giants” and got this result:
Pole Position comes into play when the search engine is confident it knows what you’re looking for. When it does, a large answer with extra information appears across the top of the page. For example, if you search for “San Francisco weather,” Bing shows a graphical weather forecast.
Google search often returns a result that looks about the same as Pole Position but Page Zero is – for now — unique to Bing. I say for now, because both companies enhance their search engines frequently and rollout updates as they’re ready.
In fact, some of Bing’s new features don’t always appear immediately, a sign that Microsoft is still testing them on a subset of users.
Finally, there’s a Bing feature that’s been around for a while, you may not have noticed and if you blog or otherwise use images from the Web, it’s very useful. When you do a search in Bing images, you see a heading called “License.” The drop-down menu lets you choose from images that are in the public domain, free to use, restricted and so on. It’s a feature that could keep you out of a serious trouble with an angry publisher.
Bing isn’t going to catch up with Google anytime soon, but all in all, it offers a lot to like. At the very least, give it a try.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.