Microsoft Bing a good start, but no game changer

Analysts said Microsoft's new search engine will help it gain share but won't affect Google's search dominance

Microsoft's new search engine, Bing, will help the company gain some search share against Google and has features that users will find helpful, but it is in no way a quick fix for the company's poor position in the search market, analysts said.

As expected, on Thursday Microsoft revealed a rebranded and expanded search engine, which it's promoting as a "decision engine" aimed at helping people better organize search information and find what they're looking for more quickly. The news came after months of speculation about what Microsoft would call its next iteration of Live Search and what new features it would have.

To help users find information more quickly, Bing's algorithm ranks search results based on how relevant they were for other users. The interface also organizes results according to subcategories, depending on the search term, so that people can find the next likely piece of information they may be looking for quickly.

While some of these features deliver better search results than Google's in a side-by-side comparison, it's not a drastic enough change to make people migrate in droves, said Greg Sterling, a search analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence.

"It's a strong first step or a new salvo for them, but it's not going to dramatically alter the market as it stands today," and Microsoft recognizes this, he said. "Microsoft doesn't see this as the end of the process; they see this as a new beginning. I think there are interesting things they can do to continue to advance the features."

Sterling said Bing may not pull much share from Google, but it could lure users away from the search engines of AOL, Ask.com and possibly Yahoo, though Microsoft is still rumored to be close to some kind of search deal with Yahoo, which of course would change the competitive landscape.

Gartner Group analyst Allen Weiner agreed that Bing isn't presenting a radical new way to search the Web. "I don't see anything that you can say, wow, I can't do this on Google or Yahoo," he said.

For example, three areas that Weiner thinks represent the future of search -- data visualization, semantic search and rich media search -- are missing from Bing as it was introduced on Thursday. None of the other major search-engine companies have been able to tackle these areas either, but they are heading in that direction.

However, what Bing does provide Microsoft is a way to catch up to what competitors have now in terms of features, Weiner said.

"It's a marked improvement from Live Search," he said. "They've done a lot to make the interface more usable, to make it cleaner-looking -- a lot with the algorithms to make the search results on par with their competitors for most searches."

The name, which has been the subject of much debate, also differentiates the brand for Microsoft. One insider said Microsoft chose the name because "bing" represents the sound made when a person finds something they're looking for.

During an appearance at the D7 conference, where Microsoft unveiled Bing, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the name was chosen because it was short, worked for a global audience and didn't have any negative connotations

No matter what the reasons, Weiner said that with Bing Microsoft has a brand -- unlike its previous MSN or Live Search brands -- "that is marketable and quick off the tongue" and easily identifiable, but not tied to the Microsoft brand.

"They've carved out a niche for themselves like they did with Xbox," he said.

It remains to be seen how well Bing fares after its official debut next Wednesday. In the meantime, Google not only continues to add features to its own search engine but also is launching new online applications. On Thursday, the company revealed an ambitious product called Wave that combines e-mail, IM, blogging, photo management, wikis and document sharing.

"Google continues to remind the world they are spending lots of money and time in dictating the future of search," Sterling said. "They are not standing still by any stretch of the imagination."

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Elizabeth Montalbano

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