June 4, 2009 11:03 pm

The search continues

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There are easier ways to search

With Google synonymous with internet search engines, it might seem foolhardy if not futile for a rival to try to outdo it – even if that rival is Microsoft. Never­theless, that is just what the world’s biggest software company is attempting to do with Bing, its new search engine, which was made publicly available on ­Monday.

I have been testing Bing, which was formerly codenamed “Kumo”, for several weeks, alongside some other interesting search developments including the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine”.

Bing has been designed to address the limitations of its predecessor, Live Search, and to improve on the search results delivered by Microsoft’s competitors, including Google. It tries to achieve this by introducing a classy new interface and themed home page and a host of important new features, such as the Explorer Pane, that help define Bing and distinguish it from rivals.

The Explorer Pane is based on technology acquired by Microsoft when it bought Powerset. It provides a context-sensitive navigation panel on the left of the screen and introduces another new feature called Quick Tabs, which breaks searches down into web groups relevant to your search.

For example, when I enter “Canon Digital Rebel” in the search field, the Explorer Pane tech­nology tries to predict the information I am really after and shows Quick Tabs for shopping, repair, accessories and a manual.

Below the Quick Tabs are two other context-sensitive search aids, Related Searches and Search History. Microsoft says 50 per cent of all searches are repeats.

Bing displays the search results in the centre of the screen and divides them into categories to make it easier to find what you want. This is useful, but it means there is less room for the search results themselves on the first results page.

As in Yahoo’s latest version of its search engine, Bing’s designers have also tried to get away from the list of blue links that characterise a Google search result and that may not include the information you are seeking. Bing tries to improve on this approach by including a preview feature embedded in the link when the cursor hovers over it. It also includes what Microsoft calls Instant Answers, which provide quick responses to factual questions, for example about currency conversions or the weather ­forecast.

Throughout the search process, Bing’s designers have also tried to bring the most likely information that a user is seeking to the fore, rather than leaving users to search link by link. For example, if you search for “Fedex” the first result will include a link to the Federal Express online package tracking tool. The second will include the location of the nearest drop-off point including phone number and directions, since Bing automatically works out where you are searching from.

Similarly, if you search for a company, Bing will usually inc­lude the contact telephone num­ber or customer services number in its results.

One of my favourite features is the enhanced image and video search, which may not be as soph­isticated as the features found in specialist search engines such as Blinkx but does now mean users can search for video content from specific providers. In addition, video search results display as thumbnail screens that come to life when the cursor moves over them.

The other main improvement in Bing – and one that may prove the most appealing – is the introduction of specialised shopping and travel search categories that can be accessed directly from the home page. If you are looking for a deal on a particular piece of electronics kit, for example, the results will include price comparisons (including cash back offers in the US from retailers that have partnered with Microsoft), user reviews collated from across the web and other useful information.

The travel search feature is particularly impressive and includes one of the best online tools for comparing air fares I have found (it is based on the Farecast technology Microsoft acquired last year). Farecast even recommends whether you should buy a ticket immediately, or wait in the hope that fares will drop, and tells you whether a quoted hotel room rate is a bargain.

Overall I found Bing to be a significant step forward from Microsoft’s Live Search and a more worthy competitor for both Google and Yahoo. But in some areas Bing still falls short. For example, results are not always as intuitive as they should be: if you enter a street address, Bing does not automatically deliver a map.

I had not expected to like Bing as much as I do, having been a fan of Google’s search engine since it was an upstart challenger to Digital Equipment’s Alta Vista. Bing may not be a complete match for Google’s search engine juggernaut but it takes a fresh ap­proach and has a clean user interface that may well appeal to the general user who has not developed the skills of professional searchers, who are used to delving through extended links.

Even if Bing fails to dent Google’s overwhelming share of the market – it had an estimated 82 per cent share of the global search market and 65 per cent of the US search market last month – internet users are likely to be the prime beneficiaries of this new battle of the giants.

paul.taylor@ft.com

Visit Paul Taylor’s new Gadget Guru forum where he answers your questions on gadgets, gizmos, software and services

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