Can Microsoft's Bing Take a Bite out of Google?

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In the world of online search, there's Google, and there's everyone else.

The undisputed Sultan of Search, a company whose name has become a verb, Google accounts for about 65% of all online searches in the U.S, according to comScore Inc. But Google's comfortable dominance may be in for its most serious challenge in years with the debut of Bing, Microsoft's new search engine. Launched in June with a marketing and advertising blitz that reportedly cost Microsoft $80 million, Bing has come out of the gate strong, adding two percentage points to Microsoft's 8.4% search share in its first week of operation.

That share will soon get a huge boost with this week's announcement of a search and advertising partnership between Microsoft and Yahoo!. If the deal goes through next year as planned, a combined Microsoft-Yahoo! platform will account for about 28% of online searches in the U.S., all of them run through Bing's underlying technology.

Google isn't exactly quaking in its boots, but for the first time in years the search giant is hearing footsteps. According to one Google insider, the week Bing launched many employees at the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters could be seen punching queries into Bing to see how the results compared with Google's. (There's now a website that will do a side-by-side comparison for you:

Inside the Googleplex, employees were particularly interested in getting a sense of Bing's search algorithm. The algorithm is a search engine's secret sauce, the complex set of instructions that determine which search results are returned and in what order. Google's algorithm is a trade secret, one guarded as jealously as the recipe for Coca-Cola.

What they might have discovered by now is that Bing represents something Google hasn't faced in a long time: a well-designed and carefully thought-out search rival backed by a competitor with very deep pockets. "In some ways, the search experience with Bing is better than Google's," says Craig Stoltz, a web consultant and the author of the blog Web2.0h...Really?. "It seems like Bing returns shorter, more valuable results. Google returns million of results, but a lot of them are pretty useless. That's a way that Google as a tool is vulnerable."

A Google spokesperson declined to comment on Bing, much as an incumbent prefers not to debate an upstart challenger. In a statement, Google said, "We have many competitors, and we take them all seriously." In other words, Google this, Bing.

Microsoft isn't quite so coy about the competition. Google was the target from Day One. "When we developed Bing, we said, 'O.K., let's really understand the market leader,' " says Danielle Tiedt, general manager of Microsoft's online-audience business group. "What are they doing well, what are they not doing well, and how can we differentiate ourselves?"

Bing has received surprisingly good reviews from critics, considering that complaining about Microsoft products is an armchair sport for bloggers. Bing, described by Microsoft as a "Decision Engine," targets four major categories of search: shopping, local, travel and health. Bing's home page is sumptuously colorful, displaying a different, richly detailed photograph every day. It's a deliberate attempt to distinguish Bing from Google's minimalist look.

Bing's search results are presented somewhat differently than Google's. A Bing results page has two components: a left-hand navigation panel that lets users click on related or recent searches, and a center panel that groups the search results into what Bing deems logical categories. Search for Obama, for example, and you'll see results grouped into categories such as Obama news, Obama issues, Obama facts and Obama biography. Google does have a type of categorization in its "related searches" feature, but it's not nearly as prominent as what Bing's. Bing also has a handy video preview feature in which you can hover your cursor over a video thumbnail and see highlights from the video play automatically.

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