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What's Microsoft's Bing Strategy?

Nipping at Google’s heels, Bing focuses on refining product-related searches.

In launching Bing as a successor to Live Search, Microsoft has decided to focus on providing searchers with a little extra assistance in making decisions in key areas like travel and shopping, hoping those tweaks would draw more visitors even if Bing’s broader search results aren’t always as good as those of Google.

Bing thing: Microsoft’s new search engine features tweaks meant to help people refine their searches.

“Bing is a limited start, but for a reasonable set of queries, it is better,” says Dan Weld, a computer scientist and search researcher at the University of Washington. “Will that cause them to gain market share? That’s a much harder question to answer.”

For most searches, Bing comes across as a competent but weaker version of Google. A search for “photovoltaics,” for example, produces much the same list of links to Wikipedia and government sites as Google, although Google also offers a book about the subject. A search for “Zurich tours” offers the same list of websites as Google, but Google also offers a map of Zurich with links to different tour operators. For many other searches, the results are barely distinguishable. This website provides a way to compare Bing and Google search results side by side.

Bing does, however, deploy some interesting tricks in a few key areas. Its most obvious distinction is the way that it attempts–subtly, for the most part–to act as an intelligent intermediary for shopping, travel reservations, health advice, and local information.

Clicking the Bing shopping channel provides product listings and links to reviews, as with Google’s shopping channel. But Bing also provides a tool on the left-hand side of the page that provides insight into the content of reviews. Reviews from sites including Epinion and Amazon are analyzed using a natural-language engine developed at Microsoft Research. This way, if a user wants opinions on the “affordability” or “speed” of a camera, for instance, he can click to view a subset of reviews dealing with those aspects.

“There is no one else I’m aware of that provides this level of aggregation or preprocessing of information to consumers,” says Stefan Weitz, one of the directors of Bing.

Similarly, when a user searches for flights, Bing adds a little box that offers a prediction about whether fares are likely to go up or down in the coming weeks. This is made available using technology that Microsoft acquired by buying Farecast. The computation is performed based on an analysis of the route, seat availability, time of year, and past history of fare changes.

And finally, when a user searches for certain broad and popular subjects (the band U2 or a health condition like diabetes, for example), Bing will show, in addition to the usual blue links, a navigation bar on the left-hand side that breaks down the results by category. Bing decides on these subsections based on previous combinations of queries; each one links to a secondary search.

In the case of U2, these categories include “images,” “songs,” “tickets,” “merchandise,” “downloads,” “interviews,” and “video.” In the case of diabetes, Bing shows results in the following categories: “articles,” “symptoms,” “diet,” “complications,” “prevention,” and “test.”

“We are going to compete hard on the core results, but where we are going to differentiate is in organizing results more effectively and providing tools to help searchers make decisions,” says Weitz.

Google is still the 800-pound gorilla, with 64 percent of the U.S. search market, compared with Microsoft’s 8 percent, according to ComScore. Yahoo, the second-largest search engine, has 21 percent. Google also claims to have the largest Web index of all, and that in just the past year, it has increased its collection of indexed documents by “billions.”

Google wouldn’t comment yesterday, only saying, in a statement, “We welcome competition that helps deliver useful information to users and expands user choice. Having great competitors is a huge benefit to us and everyone in the search space–it makes us all work harder, and at the end of the day our users benefit from that.”

According to Weld, there’s still plenty of room for both Google and Bing to improve. “Search can and will get much, much better,” he says.

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