ALTOM: Does Bing have a chance of catching Google?

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I can’t help it; every time I see the Microsoft search engine “Bing,” I hear Bing Crosby’s voice crooning in my head.

Microsoft hasn’t said that Der Bingle was the inspiration for the Bing name, of course. Rather, it’s said to be one-syllable, easy to remember, and ripe for being rendered as a verb (“I could Bing that for you if you want … ”). Bing never has been touted by Microsoft as a Google-killer, but plenty of commentators have called it that. Mostly in jest.

Few people seriously think Bing ( can successfully stage an assault across the massive moat that Google ( has built around its flagship product. But truth be told, Bing is not a bad search engine.

Unlike Google, which sprang onto the world almost fully grown, Bing has a long history of evolutionary development. Its earliest ancestor was a small search engine called “MSN Search” back in 1998, about the time Google was filing its incorporation papers. But the comparison stops there. Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had their search engine coded and ready to go, while MSN Search was badged only as Microsoft. It actually used results from other small search engines, such as AltaVista.

Over the next few years, both its name and its code morphed. In 2006, Microsoft finally coded its own engine and renamed it “Windows Live Search.” Then in 2007, Microsoft dropped the “Windows” part of the name. The search engine kept shifting and changing even after that, absorbing some other products and eventually becoming Bing in 2009. One of Bing’s earlier competitors, Yahoo, has capitulated and become just a display site for Bing searches. Worldwide, Bing now has about 10 percent of the market, when combined with Yahoo.

Bing is a decent competitor to Google, but not a really formidable one. To me, the differences are mostly a matter of taste. Google’s interface says, “You wanna search for something? Let me get outta your way!” Bing’s interface says, “Aren’t baby seals cute? It’s a great day to search, isn’t it?” Bing is more decorative and fun. Google is more Spartan and its controls are easier to spot on the page. But query “IBJ” and both come up with right at the top, along with related searches and additional links. Google works well with its own Gmail, while Bing integrates with Microsoft’s Hotmail.

Bing does offer some small improvements in other ways. For example, its video search page has previews. Just hover over one of the video thumbnails and you’ll get a short snatch of video just to see if that’s the one you want. There’s a difference behind the scenes in its maps, too. Bing uses Microsoft’s Silverlight to display maps, while Google relies on tried-and-true JavaScript. Silverlight is an application for showing advanced graphics in browsers, and it struts its stuff in Bing maps. Whereas Google maps tend to move jerkily, Bing maps are much smoother. But you do need to download Silverlight. Like Google, Bing searches for images. Unlike Google, there’s no search engine specifically for patents or scholarly papers.

Google is way out ahead in offering online applications. Book scans are peculiar to Google, as are Google Docs and Google Calendar. I’m quite partial to Google Reader, an aggregator for other sites where you can instantly spot updates to blogs or other sites you want to follow. But Bing isn’t by any means a one-trick pony itself. It’s hooked up with Wolfram Alpha, a math-and-science search engine that can even do advanced math. It has a dedicated dictionary, provisions for searching Twitter and Facebook, a translation application, and travelers may appreciate its integration of Microsoft’s Farecast, which allows Bing to look up deals in air fares and reservations. Like Google, it also can search shopping sites, forecast weather and present news from other sites as an aggregator.

Unfortunately for Bing, in the search engine business it’s all about habitual use, and the searching public is definitely fixated on using Google. Bing has some improvements over Google in some areas, but it has yet to eat into Google’s lead. Google still commands some 80 percent or more of the global search engine market. This is important, because Google can also command the vast majority of search engine marketing dollars. If you want to get your company noticed, Google is the obvious choice for an ad buy.

By all means, try Bing and see what you think. Microsoft can always hope it catches Google by the time our sun burns out.•


Altom is a consultant specializing in pairing businesses with appropriate technology. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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