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Google may rule, but Bing shows zing

Bing won't replace Google as the world's default search engine, but it does a few things well.

Bing won't replace Google as the world's default search engine, but it does a few things well.

Well enough that Microsoft's new search engine may be worth a try the next time you're doing a specific kind of search on the Web, like comparison shopping for products, travel planning or searching for Web videos.

After months of rumors, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer finally presented last week at a Wall Street Journal tech conference in California.

Ballmer acknowledged that even with Bing, Microsoft still has a long way to go in the search business. The latest report by research firm comScore said Google's share of U.S. Web searches in April was 64 percent, compared with Microsoft's 8.2 percent.

Gaining search stature is going to take "lots of years," Ballmer told the Journal's Walt Mossberg during the "D: All Things Digital" conference.

But Bing isn't a frontal attack on Google as much as a collection of new search tools that challenge the market leader from different angles.

Bing is also an attempt to clarify the confusing series of identities given to Microsoft's search service, which had previously morphed from MSN to Live.

Ballmer told Mossberg the company needed a short, memorable name different from the brands used for its Web portal and services attached to Microsoft's Windows and Office franchises.

"We wanted something that unambiguously said search," he said in the interview, excerpts of which were posted online.

Bing also feels different. When Bing demonstrates its fancy tricks during specialized shopping searches, it feels more like a collection of Web 2.0 sites than a traditional search engine.

Instead of the simple list of results flanked by ads, with a few pictures or videos mixed in, Bing gives clusters of results with buttons, tabs and charts.

It shines when doing shopping for a particular product. The results include compilations of reviews pulled from Web sites such as

Microsoft also integrated its Cashback program so that Bing displays the cash rebates Microsoft provides if you shop from participating sites.

Yet one of my first Bing searches fell flat. I searched for Hewlett-Packard's Windows Home Server to see what sort of Cashback deals were available.

But Bing was stumped when I mistyped the name _ I entered "HP medismart server" _ and gave me a blank page with no results.

When I entered the same typo in Google, it asked "Did you mean HP mediasmart server?" It also guessed that my entry was a typo and gave me the MediaSmart results anyway.

Yet it's good that Google is getting some competition.

I don't care whether it's from Microsoft or another company, but I'm getting uncomfortable with a single ad-funded company being the undisputed, universal portal to the Web.

Google is a wonderful tool, but it's like getting all your news from CNN, your coffee only from Starbucks or your operating systems only from Microsoft. Those companies defined cable news, ubiquitous premium coffee and the PC platform, but it's nice to have alternatives.

The thing about search is that it's incredibly hard to do well, and nobody's come close to matching the quality of Google's service.

It's become almost a utility, like electricity, that people take for granted. Do they care that much about the provider as long as it works well?

After spending part of a day browsing with Bing, I'm not going to pull the plug on Google.

But I'll bookmark Bing and give it another try the next time I'm launching an intensive search, like shopping, where I'd like a wide variety of information without having to click through page after page of results.

Video searches are especially cool on Bing. It returns thumbnail images, just like other search engines. But when you hover over the images, the video starts playing right there, without clicking through.

Travel shopping is another highlight of Bing. It draws heavily on the price-prediction technology Microsoft obtained when it bought Seattle startup Farecast last year.

Other Bing standouts include listings of topics, such as local restaurants, which are displayed with maps and ratings. Buttons on the side can be clicked to tailor the search and set price ranges, again adding the sort of controls common on specialized Web sites.

Bing makes you wonder if Microsoft executives regret selling or spinning off some of the Web services it built in the 1990s, such as travel site Expedia and entertainment directory Sidewalk.

It basically re-created some of their features to give Bing its bling. Imagine what might have happened if it had rolled them into MSN Search back in 2000.

Brier Dudley:

(c) 2009, The Seattle Times.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.