Microsoft has taken its first steps in redefining search with its “decision engine,” releasing Bing to a generally positive reception and with a new TV ad that portrays Google (with out mentioning it by name) as a disorganized returner of random links.
Bing did surprise many a reviewer last week with its user-friendly interface and ability to logically organize content on a results page. It was hard to find a review that panned Bing and the tool has already shown a bump in search share, according to market researcher comScore.
But the margin of error for Bing is tiny against established powerhouse Google. With that in mind, here are a five features that could use some fine-tuning, or perhaps, an early death.
Redundancy in Categories
Bing's categorized search results are meant to break up links on the page into logical sections. For instance, search results for the Boston Celtics are categorized by Schedule, Roster, Tickets, Cheerleaders, Images and Video.
Yet these search headings lead to a lot of scrolling down the page to find what you want. At the same time the headings are redundant because these same categories are listed in the Explorer Pane in the navigation menu in the left hand column.
Quick Preview Box Acts Flaky
Despite having the good intention of accelerating access to information, the Quick Preview feature, which allows you to mouse over a small orange dot next to links on a results page and get a text-based summary of what's on that site, often just repeats the sentence or two that is under the link.
What's worse: the preview pop-up box doesn't always appear right away and sometimes it doesn't appear at all. Often there's no text in the box, or the text isn't all that relevant.
For example, the Quick Preview for “BusinessWeek magazine” pulls two random paragraphs from the latest issue when what you want is a blurb on what topics it covers, etc.
When the Quick Preview feature works, it's quite useful. But it needs to work perfectly all the time or it will get annoying.
Travel Tools Somewhat Buried
Strangely, some of the features that Microsoft seems proudest of are not at your fingertips like they should be.
One example is airfare deals. Using technology acquired from the purchase of Farecast in 2008, Bing now has a built-in tool for comparing airfares and hotel prices. It uses a predictive algorithm to recommend the best time to buy a ticket.
That tool sounds cool, and it is. If you can find it. The “Travel” link on the main Bing page is the gateway to all the hotel and airfare features. But if you miss this link (and it's easy to miss) and you just type in, say, “Boston to San Francisco” you go to a results page with scattered links about the two cities. The same applies when your search is coming from a search field in a browser.
Thankfully, the top link in the “Boston to San Francisco” search will get you to the Bing cheap flights page, but the “Travel” link from the main Bing page is not in the header of the results page. Why? Don't know. So you have to do some poking around.
Microsoft Favoring Its Own
Given its past court battles over monopoly issues, will Microsoft tailor Bing search results to favor its own products or those of its partners?
Some preferential treatment can already be seen in Bing. When searching the term “virtualization”, the second link on the results page is about Microsoft's virtualization product. A link for VMware, the market share leader in the virtualization space, appears in the ninth spot.
In the “related search” list in the left column there is a link for Microsoft virtualization but no link for any other vendor. In a Google search for “virtualization” VMware is the first link on the results page after Wikipedia, and Microsoft is fifth.
Similarly, a search for “smartphone” in Bing returns a Microsoft link in spot two. Links for “Blackberry” and “Palm” don't show up until way down the page and “iPhone” is nowhere to be seen.
A Google search for “smartphone” brings up links for Sprint and BlackBerry (although they are sponsored links) followed by links to HTC, and stories about Apple's new iPhone, Acer and Samsung before a Microsoft link appears at spot number eight.
The Porn Problem
Bing's video search at first seems preferable to Google's, mainly because its small video preview icons have a feature called smart motion preview that plays videos when you mouse over them. But this cool feature has led to some very uncool consequences. Why? Well, porn mostly.
By being able to auto-play video snippets of adult content without having to leave the site, Bing basically becomes a rowdy porn site.
Microsoft found itself in hot water over this issue with online safety advocates immediately after Bing launched. The company defended itself in a blog post by pointing to its “Safe Search” feature, which can filter out sexual content from video searches.
Fair enough, but this filter is ridiculously easy for anyone to circumvent. It takes two clicks to turn it off and then you can watch hardcore adult videos without even clicking.
And the ramifications of smart motion porn goes beyond children and into the workplace, where employees could bypass their company's monitoring software and view explicit material at work (Disclaimer: I am NOT condoning this). Office dwellers very well may accidentally mouse over such clicks with embarrassing consequences, as well.
In response, Microsoft has recently agreed to allow corporate customers to enforce stronger search filters in Bing within their networks. That's a good start, but Microsoft will have to do more to take the Bada out of Bing.