Last June, Microsoft launched a revamped version of its search engine, Live Search, and dubbed it "Bing, The Decision Engine." Since Bing's introduction, it has become the fastest growing search engine on the Internet according to Nielsen, accounting for 10.7 percent of all online searches, gaining ground on Yahoo's number two position, but still far behind Google and its 65.7 percent of the search share.
But Stefan Weitz, director for Bing, said Microsoft is not out to dethrone Google. Its goals with Bing are much higher: Microsoft wants to redefine search altogether.
On the surface Bing appears to work like the competition, but it is packed full of novel search features like a recipe search, cashback for shopping and Farecaster, which predicts the likelihood of an airline ticket price going up or down over the next seven days.
How we search
Many Bing users, however, don't even know these functions exist. Weitz acknowledged that using Bing for the first time can be confusing, but said he thinks the problem lies in the way people have been programmed to search.
"The problem is that people have become accustomed to only doing certain things on search engines," Weitz told TechNewsDaily. "And those things are generally looking for a website. I can ask a search engine what's happening this weekend, but people just don't think they can ask those kinds of questions."
Weitz said people have been programmed over the last decade or so to think of search in a very particular way: They enter a keyword and they get back a bunch of blue links. Weitz characterized search before Bing as very DOS-like – a reference to an early computer operating system that preceded Windows – functional but requiring a lot of work on the part of the user.
Data gathered by web analytics firm OneStat confirms these patterns. Of all the search queries worldwide, 33.65 percent of people use two-word phrases, 26.27 percent use three-word phrases and 15.52 percent use a one-word phrase.
Bing designers want people to rethink search. Instead of searching for a Web page by a keyword or two that may or may not provide the desired result, Bing users are encouraged to ask questions in search the same way they might ask someone sitting next to them.
Weitz pointed out the reference tab in Bing and said, "It uses natural language search. We can actually understand the questions." Instead of expecting pages of Websites to cull through, Bing users should expect an answer then and there, cutting search times by half or more.
"The whole premise behind Bing was that we wanted to drive the experience based on the user's intent," said Weitz. "We have a lot of features that fire when we detect a particular intent, like looking at airfare, buying a product, looking at what's happening this weekend or checking out the weather."
Weitz and the folks at Bing want people to realize, "Oh, wow! I can do more than I thought I could." But Weitz admits that retraining people to expect more from their search engines is going to take time.
Weitz and his marketing team at Bing are starting by reaching out to groups they have identified as having a high affinity with search and with one another, including teachers, crafters and scientists. Weitz travels the country speaking to these groups and shows them how Bing can be relevant to their particular fields. Weitz is counting on these individuals to tell their friends and colleagues how to use the features that are most relevant to their group.
Lessons from a 5-year-old
Weitz's own 5-year-old daughter has taught him that it's also important for people to question search results.
"I know she puts in a query and assumes the results are accurate and not spammy, but we know that for many queries, there's a lot of ambiguity," he said.
As a result, part of the Bing mission is to help kids and adults critically think through the results they get back, look at the source of the information, and look at the other writings on a Web site to assess its overall reliability. "We think there's a lot of work we can do to help kids be safer and more knowledgeable on the Web," Weitz said.
Weitz said he spends a lot of time with Bing engineers to figure out how the search engine can show more authoritative results, but he is careful that that Bing does not bias the results.
"You don't want [the search engine] to drive conversation," he said. "You run the risk of setting news rather than reporting it, which is a problem."
Exclusive or open?
Recently, American entrepreneur and HDNet chairman Mark Cuban suggested that Microsoft pay news sites to "go exclusive with Bing" after Rupert Murdock threatened to delist all of his news from Google by July 2010.
But it's unclear what the benefits of such a move would be, Weitz said. "We have to ask the question, does having an exclusive lock on information benefit the user at the end?" he said in a telephone interview. "And I struggle to figure out the scenario where that does benefit the user."
The near future for Bing involves adding more niche search engines. Already Bing can provide direct answers to travel, recipe, shopping, and health queries. The longer-term future for Bing involves retraining people in the way they search while making Bing even better at identifying user intent, Weitz said.
"We are trying to expand the universe of things people can do with a search engine. We want people to say, let me go Bing it."