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If it isn’t Google, it isn’t search

Posted on 24th Jun 2009 at 12:19 by Alex Watson with 24 comments

Alex Watson
So there’s a new search engine called Bing. It’s made by Microsoft, and before it was Bing, it was Live Search, and before that Windows Live Search and MSN Search and... basically it’s been going since the Magna Carta, and since it’s not Google, 90% of people don’t care. But Microsoft does, and it wants you to. It’s really serious this time about taking on Google so it’s spending billions of dollars to make sure people stop Googling and start Binging. Steve Ballmer said Microsoft was “willing to spend five to ten percent of operating income for up to five years”. That’s serious cash.

A small slice of this moolah has fallen to us at bit-tech (we already spent it on Taiwanese beef jerky), but unlike a lot of ad campaigns, this one is interesting as Microsoft has been quite keen to know what we think, and what you, the readers think about search – specifically, the problems with it. If you do want to give your thoughts on search, we’re running a survey and you can win an Xbox 360 Elite.

It’s a difficult question, because, to be honest, my first answer was that I didn’t really have any problems with search. Google just works. There’s a reason that this is the answer given in many a forum thread.
After my initial reaction, I started to think again – after all, as good as Google is, is it really perfect? That has all the hallmarks of being 640k statement.

In fact, what I realised is Google is perfect for is Googling – that is to say, there are some queries I have which I go to Google with, because I know it will handle them very well, but there are lots of other queries which are, technically ‘search’ which go elsewhere. In my mind, these queries are quite distinct. The former is search, the latter is something else.

If it isn’t Google, it isn’t search

Take books – I’m an avid reader, so I’m always interested in book recommendations. If I hear a friend talking about a book, or one mentioned on the TV or radio, I’ll look it up on Amazon. If I’m interested in finding out about the author, I’ll try Wikipedia, if it’s a movie trailer I want, I’ll hit the Apple site. When it’s pancake day and I’ve inevitably forgotten how to cook pancakes, I’ll go to the BBC Food website to look up a recipe. If I’m researching new camera gear, or want to find photos of places, I’ll start with Flickr. If there’s a news event happening that I want to know more about – let’s say the recent uprisings in Iran – I’ll go directly to the Guardian, the New York Times or the BBC. Google’s where I go for everything else.

There’s clearly quite a lot of information that I search for online that never goes near Google, but regardless of this, I still perceived Google as being perfect. Essentially, Google has managed to position itself as not just the best search engine, but as the very definition of what it is to search online.

Bing’s problem is twofold, then. The first is that its competitor is very good at what it does and has been for many years, and so has both dominant marketshare and mindshare. The second is that Google’s dominance means Bing has to let its competitor define the argument. Google is search. It’s what people expect from search. As a result, Bing looks and works like a Google clone. True, there are some differences between the two – the big full colour photo in the background, and a nicely implemented quick preview of a page when you hover to name two – but essentially, Bing looks no different from Google. It doesn’t really work differently either, with a search box that you type into, and the ability to specifically search for images and video.

Yet, if you think about it, while Google has become the very definition of online search, it’s a very narrowly defined vision of search. A Google search is academic, direct and simple in its structure. It’s the kind of inquiry you might, twenty or thirty years ago, have made in a library.

Offline, outside the library, search has always been much more varied – so, as I noted above, people vary where they look for information both online and offline – but search offline is also a two way process, and increasingly, I think it’s going to be a two way process online. It’s here that Google (and Bing) fall down.

Imagine that you want to learn to snowboard. Offline, you might visit a Ski shop, and you could chat to the assistants there about what you need to start off. The assistant will vary what advice they give you based on your responses to their questions. Search engines can try and mimic this relatively shallow two-way communication – but then imagine if you’ve got a friend who can snowboard, and you ask them for advice. They will factor into their advice all the things they know about you
– for instance, if you’ve been Skiing before, or can skateboard, how sporty you are and a hundred million other considerations. There’s a deep, and often quite subtle interplay of knowledge going on.

Online, you can alter your Google query to, in essence, try and tell the system more about yourself – so you could Google ‘snowboarding for beginners’ rather than just ‘snowboarding’ – but it’s a poor imitation of what you get in real life, and you’ll likely spend quite a lot of time reading results from a general query, before returning to Google to refine a new query. It’s time consuming, and again, very academic – how many people have the time to sit there endlessly refining their queries?

Most search offline takes place in your network of friends, acquaintances and trusted sources. This is the reason that search inside social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are receiving such a lot of buzz at the moment, because unlike Google, they allow to replicate a degree of your offline life online. Search engines are doing their best to learn about people who are searching (storing huge amounts of data, iGoogle etc) – witness the recently launched Hunch, which actually asks you questions about your personality - but they’re starting at a huge disadvantage compared to an online social network which you’ve set up to replicate your real life friends and social contacts.

Essentially then, my feeling is that traditional search engines such as Google (and Bing) will face increasing competition from social search, and become increasingly less relevant.

24 Comments

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Bauul 24th June 2009, 13:49 Quote
On my current HSDPA 3G connection, Google takes (very approximately) just under a second to load and allow me to search.

Bing was pushing seven seconds. Even with the website in my local cache, it was still pushing two seconds plus. For a website that's all about finding content, not providing it, this extra wait is just unnaccaptable. When driving to a resteraunt, would you take the 1 mile road or the 7 mile road? Regardless of how pretty the route might be, with time differences like that Bing just isn't a contender.
wuyanxu 24th June 2009, 13:56 Quote
without keyword highlighting on the text below the link, any search engine is a fail.
Narishma 24th June 2009, 14:05 Quote
I think Bing is in the situation for search engines that Linux for example is in for operating systems. Their competitor is good enough and people don't see any reason to change and learn a new thing while what they are used to works well enough. So unless it becomes superior to Google by an order of magnitude it won't go anywhere. If it's just as good as Google or just a bit better people won't bother with it.
Paradigm Shifter 24th June 2009, 14:25 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by
Google has the mindshare of even people who aren't tech geeks... Bing will have to crowbar itself into the mind of the general populous if it wants to get anywhere.

Of course, spending 10% of MS' operating income could flood everywhere with ads...
Perforated 24th June 2009, 14:32 Quote
It strikes me that Bing is in a weak position in relation to Google as other browsers are to IE, and without a clear superiority. IF it manages to improve to the point of being superior to Google, it has a shot - much like Firefox has against IE.

It kinda entertains me, though I'm sure the comparison is imperfect, that if the technique works then Firefox may have a similar majority over IE by the time Bing is a contender for Google, and MS will be complaining that Firefox bundling Google as the default search provider is unfair...

This isn't strictly on topic, I just felt like sharing.

Back on topic, I'm with the 'Google's not broken' brigade. I don't see how they're going to produce a direct competitor - to make it preferable to Google, they'll surely have to make it almost unrecognisably different? I'm usually proven wrong.
Exemplar: I had an Ericsson T29s once. It was relatively small, attractive, jeans-pocket slim, made very clear calls and had predictive text. Other than making phones smaller, it was unclear (to me, then) quite where mobile phones would go from there - now, getting on for a decade later, the answer is bigger, colour screens and an entirely different feature set. My phone now browses the internet and takes photos - but call quality is effectively the same. I call, people (usually) answer, I can understand them (unless I'm calling the bank).

Beating Google will take lateral thinking - 'if you came here for a search engine, you might also like...', not just 'if you want to search, you came to the right place!'
For me, the biggest searching advancement has been Fx's inline search bar, being able to select wholly different engines (Google, Wiki, IMDB, maps, images, whatever) before you even load the site. That's a browser trick, not a search engine trick, though - and almost makes the search homepages irrelevant. If that becomes the normal way of searching for the general populace, it's going to be even harder to get accross that 'hook' feature as people won't even be entering search engine URLs any more.
Paradigm Shifter 24th June 2009, 14:37 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Perforated
My phone now browses the internet and takes photos - but call quality is effectively the same. I call, people (usually) answer, I can understand them (unless I'm calling the bank).

:) True and funny. +rep.
RTT 24th June 2009, 14:48 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by The Article
If you do want to give your thoughts on search, we’re running a survey and you can win an Xbox 360 Elite.

Did anyone proof read that survey? 'Frustration' was not spelt correctly once, plus numerous other mistakes


Back on topic, I'd bet a good amount that Bing will not increase market or mindshare in the next 12 months above what it already occupies.
robyholmes 24th June 2009, 15:11 Quote
WHy don't they put money in to the next big internet thing, goggle has the search engine, get over it Microsoft!
Claave 24th June 2009, 15:23 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Perforated
It strikes me that Bing is in a weak position in relation to Google as other browsers are to IE, and without a clear superiority. IF it manages to improve to the point of being superior to Google, it has a shot - much like Firefox has against IE.

Any guesses what IE's default search-bar search engine is as of now? And how many people even know (let alone care) how to change that? If we guess that 80% of IE users are fairly IT-illiterate, and that IE has about 75% browser market share, Bing is going to win by default (aka, ignorance).

I'd be worried if I was Google - we could see a big shift to Bing very quickly, and for purely arbitrary reasons, rather than quality or service. I'd suggest that it's Google that needs to up its game and provide something more compelling than the IE default search...
TGImages 24th June 2009, 15:24 Quote
Me too.

I have to agree with most of the comments. Google works. Period. Why change? Unless Bing offers me something revolutionary there isn't any motiviation to change. I know how to structure requests in Google (+ and - and such) that it is very rare I don't get what I want on the first page and usually in the first few results. I can't see how Bing can improve on that.

The Wolfram search offers an interesting alternative but only for very specific purposes/questions. I can see it as a niche alternative but again Google just plain works.

MS with Bing or anyone else has a better shot at the market due to Google screwing up than they do with their product regardless of how good it is. I guess you could phrase it as "It's Google's market to lose." If they don't then they will stay in their position.

MS did the same with IE... it was their market to lose and by not following standards and such they gave away market share to the compeititors.
Sifter3000 24th June 2009, 15:48 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Perforated
Exemplar: I had an Ericsson T29s once. It was relatively small, attractive, jeans-pocket slim, made very clear calls and had predictive text. Other than making phones smaller, it was unclear (to me, then) quite where mobile phones would go from there - now, getting on for a decade later, the answer is bigger, colour screens and an entirely different feature set. My phone now browses the internet and takes photos - but call quality is effectively the same. I call, people (usually) answer, I can understand them (unless I'm calling the bank).

Yes, absolutely spot on - that's what I was referring to when talking about social search. Google's so successful that any attempt to beat it will have to be brand new, not just a better Google.
GoodBytes 24th June 2009, 16:35 Quote
Ahhh man, after answer the whole survey it ended being UK only.
Thanks a lot bit-tech :( Anyway, I had to cancel the survey.
delriogw 24th June 2009, 16:43 Quote
is it just me or is the name 'bing' just seeming completely stupid.

i'm sure many of us thought that google was a funny sounding word when it first arrived (for those of us that remember that far back ! lol) but in my head i could make it make sense by breaking it down into go-ogle, as in go look. even though that's not how it's said, it makes the word fit the context.

bing just brings to mind that silly noise effect they add to the smile that glints at you.
xaser04 24th June 2009, 17:14 Quote
The ironic thing I see is that if someone wants to find out about 'bing' they will google it.....
oasked 24th June 2009, 17:30 Quote
Google needs competition to stay healthy, this is some competition (although not that much).

For the most part it works pretty well, but it is essentially a Google clone.
minimad127 24th June 2009, 17:40 Quote
do you think they are trying to go down the naming route brought to us by Friends, i cant remember the episode but i can just remember the bit in it where Joey thought Chandlers answering machine message was just Chandler 'Bing'

anyways other than adding Bing as the default search engine bundled with IE i really cant see it taking off as people in general use what they are used to, its the main reason i have IE and Firefox on my home computer since i want to have a better program and experience (Firefox) but the kids and wife want to use what they know (IE)
Aracos 24th June 2009, 18:03 Quote
I use google because of it's simplicity, I go on google, I'm greeted by their logo and a search bar.....That's all I want, not a picture of 2 beavers. Also it's a microsoft product so there's another reason not to use it XD but seriously msn and live search were both fail so if they do improve on it then it might become popular.
Sifter3000 24th June 2009, 18:07 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by storm20200
That's all I want, not a picture of 2 beavers.

There's *definitely* a pr0n joke in there somewhere... :p
alpaca 24th June 2009, 19:42 Quote
in firefox, i have a link to wikipedia, wolframalpha(love the site for simple, accurate and up to date conversion (how much are x pounds in euro, how much cm are y inches,... and as an online calculator)),interglot(translator) and the google searchthingie. i fail to see why bing should accompany them. or replace any of them.
wuyanxu 24th June 2009, 19:54 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by xaser04
The ironic thing I see is that if someone wants to find out about 'bing' they will google it.....
lol, that's the exact thing i did:

"hum, what's the address of bing." i thought to myself. and typed in bing in Chrome earlier at work. which brings up google. if had done it in Firefox which also goes to google first
Xir 24th June 2009, 20:38 Quote
Bing has the same problem that google has, a problem to differentiate your search.

I search for a keyword, get 10.000.000 results...and have no way of filtering other than searching again, with multiple keywords.

(also it blocks pr0n...which is good if set by default but bad if irreversible...)
Also, what else does it block? Who decides what is to block?
The_Beast 25th June 2009, 00:04 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sifter3000
There's *definitely* a pr0n joke in there somewhere... :p


I think it's pretty clear but I have a dirty mind
SinxarKnights 26th June 2009, 22:40 Quote
I tried Bing. In fact i was searching for a specific MS KB page (searched for "KB9*something*" cant remember off the top of my head what it was). The KB article is listed but the entire first page of links linked to non-existant Microsoft webpages - instant fail in my book.

I used Google and the first result was what i needed - the correct link to the MS site.

MS should stick to OSs. Search isnt their cup of tea for sure if they cannot index their own site.
dogknees 29th June 2009, 12:20 Quote
Google Just Doesn't Work!

It's fine for shallow stuff. The sort of thing you would have found in the local library. If you're after something a bit more detailed, it tends to hit a dead end. If you're looking for the professional texts or the latest developments in research, it's difficult to impossible.

For example, I've spent a lot of time over the years learning about the current research in AI. There are thousands, at least, of useful and interesting papers in the various university sites around the world. But you'll never find them using Google.

This constantly frustrates me as the information is out there, it just can't easily be found. If the 'net is to be useful to all of us, not just the majority, there needs to be a way to find ALL the content that's publicly available.

There are quite a few areas or knowledge that you can find very little about be using Google. A lot of the time it's pure bind luck, or a matter of finding a name that's mentioned on a newsgroup, then tracking it all over the place until you eventually, maybe, find what you're looking for.

Until there is a way to find this stuff easily and quickly, the 'net can't fulfil it's promise. Everything one might want to know may be there (which is debatable, but I like to take people on their word, and many say it is) but if it's impossible to find it may as well not be.

My interests might not be common, but they are the sort of things students would be looking for, particularly post-docs and the like. This should be at least as important as being able to find out who won the game last night. It certainly has a far greater long term effect on our world.
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