It’s hard to compete when your opponent’s name is so popular that it’s become a verb. Such is the plight of every search engine that dares to challenge Google.
Last year, four search engines made up more than 95 percent of all search traffic: Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask. Only Google increased its share of the pie that year, eating up 67 percent of all searches in January and 72 percent by 2009, according to the online traffic monitor Hitwise.
But something changed this year. Microsoft retired its MSN site and launched a new search engine called Bing. Now, this newcomer is the only one gobbling more of the pie, almost doubling MSN’s share since Bing launched in June. Bing is still relatively small. Hitwise says it served about 10 percent of searches in October. But its new formula distinguishes itself from Google’s in several interesting and useful ways. No wonder it’s grabbed more converts than any competitor this year.
Bing sells itself as a general-interest search engine, but its real philosophy is more nuanced. Whereas Google more or less treats every search the same – current events, product reviews, and quirky queries all run through the same massive database – Bing focuses on the few hundred terms that people search for the most. It then tries to craft the perfect results pages for those selected items.
In other words, if Google is a phone book to the city – where you can find everything – Bing is the tour book, with more helpful information on certain attractions. Bing will still find results for anything you throw at it, but Google often does a better job with those screwball queries.
Bing shines most in three areas. It helps shoppers with filters that let them narrow their product searches; a cash-back program also saves a few percent off certain items. When looking into celebrities, Bing rolls in biographical information and updates from the person’s Twitter messages. Third, searches for flight information come with a digital travel adviser that suggests whether ticket prices will likely go up or down in coming weeks.
Perhaps the new Visual Search shows off this focus most clearly. It’s attractive, clever, useful, yet only works with 50 search terms.