Bing Helps Overcome Search Shortcomings, Still No Google-Killer

bingMicrosoft (s msft) is hoping its new search engine, now questionably branded “Bing,” can grab eyeballs from Google (s goog) and Yahoo (s yhoo) — and is spending $80 million to $100 million on an extensive marketing campaign to make that happen. Its goal: To convince searchers that the “decision engine” in Bing will help them find information better than regular old “search engines.”

But Bing doesn’t fundamentally change the way search works. The service tries its best to help users find information they’re searching for with fewer clicks — and does this quite well for many queries. Searching for “Red Sox” brings up scores from the last few games, the team’s record, and various other statistics. Search for “weather” and Bing does a reverse-IP lookup to figure out where you are and return weather results for that locale. Same thing if you search for “Chinese food.” The travel section of Bing is cool, letting you search for flights within the search engine, incorporating price prediction data from Microsoft’s purchase of Farecast last year, before sending you on to Orbitz or Travelocity to purchase your flight. Bing is a nice revamp of a B-List search product, but lots of small improvements don’t make it revolutionary enough to knock Google off its perch — and neither will an ad campaign.

In an interview with AdAge, a Microsoft exec said:

Search has been about number of results and access to everything, and when you talk to people, they don’t want everything anymore…Less is the new more. [People] want the right things for them.

That’s true, but Bing doesn’t address the fundamental issue with search engines today.

There is an old computing adage that states, “The computer does what you tell it to do, not what you want it to do.” Search engines work the same way. Google returns data based on the search query given — but users don’t know how to craft queries, using obscure commands and symbols, to get the information they want. It’s not Google or Yahoo’s ineffectiveness as a search engine that’s keeping users from finding what they’re looking for — it’s a lack of education in how to search.

When less-sophisticated searchers (my mother, for example) use Google to find information, they aren’t aware of the various tricks to filter results down and get exactly what they’re searching for. Using various boolean strings and site:-type modifiers in searches can quickly narrow a search to just the relevant information. Not knowing these tricks, or how to use them (which is why large universities have trained research librarians and teach classes on how to do research), can be a recipe for search-disaster.

The first ad in Microsoft’s marketing campaign, from JWT North America, came across to me as brash and confusing. An ominous voice-over intones, “While everyone was searching, there was bailing; while everyone was lost in the links, there was collapsing.” I don’t know if essentially comparing the financial crisis to users’ inability to find what they’re looking for on the Internet is exactly accurate. Ty Montague, chief creative officer at JWT, told AdAge, “We’ve been lulled into thinking it’s OK to spend two hours doing something that should have taken a few minutes.”

Bing is better at some things — a search for “cell phone” prompts the user with options for news, buying guides, providers and plans. However, if users had a better search query than the über-general “cell phone,” they would get considerably better search results. Will Microsoft’s next round of ads, equating Google with “search overload,” help it grab search share? Maybe, but I doubt users will go flocking to Bing long-term. Google is, for a massive number of users, “good enough.” It’s even become part of the vernacular. Users don’t “search.” They “google.” The clever features in Bing are great, but don’t solve the problem of “search overload.” To really fix search, the average user needs a class on how to effectively use it — and no 30-second ad spot during “The Office” is going to accomplish that.