Bing Becoming Search in Name Only

With Google (s GOOG) having tied up the search market, Microsoft (s MSFT) is redefining the category to include browsing and discovery. Executives at a press conference in San Francisco today presented Bing as a portal that organizes information to anticipate what users may want to know and decide. Bing wants users to “browse to your intent rather than trying to type in a very complex query,” as Satya Nadella, SVP of the company’s online services division, put it.

With 9.9 percent market share six months in, Microsoft is emphasizing Bing features that make use of researching what people actually want to know and piping in information from content creators to provide answers in a dense but readable way. So, for example, concert data comes from Zvents, health info from the Mayo Institute, and college admissions statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Microsoft was careful to say at today’s event that it is strategically “ingesting” data, not curating it by hand. In some ways, the Bing system seems brittle and undemocratic — trusting a single source rather than the wealth of knowledge on the web. However, for weather, for instance, Bing uses three different providers and stacks their forecasts right next to each other, giving best placement to the one that’s been the most accurate to date.

Such information is now structured into what Microsoft calls “entity cards” (what shows up when you search) and “task pages” (what you see when you click through), which it will continually roll out for additional topics and will also be used to make mobile search activity more efficient and informative. “A lot of what we’ve done in the PC space is actually a lot more applicable and relevant on the mobile phone,” said Nadella.

Where the Bing model doesn’t really work is for information Microsoft is porting in from more robust and social environments like Facebook and Twitter. Demos of planned products that harness data from the two sites seemed pretty silly; for instance, you can see your connections on Facebook ranked by number of posts, or look for upcoming birthdays. On Twitter, you can see the most-followed users and top political or entertainment figures.

Easily the coolest thing Microsoft presented was a demo of the new Silverlight-powered Bing Maps beta, which uses 3-D modeling and photo-realism to move between birds-eye, road, aerial, streetside and Photosynth user-submitted pictures. The demo, presented by Blaise Aguera y Arcas, a Microsoft partner architect, was awesome, showing fluid and spatially coherent shifts between different views and elegant “mash-in” data from location-tagged posts from Twitter (well, mostly Foursquare) and user review sites. Unfortunately, when I tried to use the beta for myself, it couldn’t pull up coverage of our San Francisco office (one of the 100 cities supposed to be included), and it slowed down Firefox to an excruciating crawl. For now I’ll be sticking to Google Maps, but you can see how the kind of structured data Bing is honing would make sense in that layered visual environment.