May 28, 2009, 12:00 AM

Microsoft lifts the curtain on its new Bing search engine

Microsoft says Bing will deliver more relevant results, organize them better and provide on the search results page more information searchers need to make decisions, including when shopping online.

Microsoft Corp. launched today a major effort to make its third-ranked search engine more competitive with market leader Google and runner-up Yahoo.

As expected, Microsoft rebranded its search engine Bing, replacing the Live Search name. And the software giant made clear that it is about to launch a major advertising campaign to let consumers know about Bing. It also provided the first detailed look at Bing, which Microsoft says will do a better job than existing search engines of helping consumers make decisions. In fact, it’s calling Bing a “decision engine,” not a search engine. The new search engine will be rolled out gradually over the next few days and will be available to all by June 3 at Bing.com.

Microsoft will emphasize in its marketing campaign that Bing is better in three ways, says Whitney Burk, director, Bing. It will, she says, deliver more relevant results, organize them better and provide on the search results page more information searchers need to make decisions, including when shopping online.

“We’re focused on making sure a user knows exactly what they’re getting and getting to it fast,” Burk says. One way is by highlighting certain results as the best match. “If you put in J. Crew as a search term we’ll pull out JCrew.com and say this is the best match,” Burk says. “We’re also pulling out the customer service number where we can find that information, which is often many clicks into a site, and putting that right up front.” In many cases, shoppers will be able to search directly in a retailer’s site from the search results page, a feature Google has offered with some retailers.

Helping to better organize results, she says, will be an Explore Pane on the left side of search results displaying common refinements to a particular search term. “If you put in Macy’s common refinements might be coupons, store locations and job opportunities. If you search for a car, such as Honda Civic hybrid, you might see parts, dealers and specs. We’re looking at how people are refining their queries commonly and offering quick tabs on the left-hand side of the page,” Burk says.

The third element is providing useful information, which in the case of shopping will include user and expert reviews. Microsoft has searched the web for product reviews and will summarize them quickly on the search results page, Burk says. If someone searches for a digital camera, the results page will show links to reviews, and also provide a chart showing, for instance, that 95% of the reviews rate this camera as good on photo quality. “That way you can figure out quickly without reading 85 reviews that this camera has good photo quality, based on the sentiment extraction we’re doing,” Burk says.

Consumers who click on a product will see a Microsoft-produced page showing product details, an image, user and expert reviews, and links to retailers selling the product.

Bing also heavily promotes the cashback program Microsoft introduced a year ago that offers consumers who buy through the Microsoft program a percentage back on purchases. Microsoft says more than 800 online retailers now participate, but would not provide details on consumer use. In its search results, Bing will highlight retailers that participate in cashback. Retailers pay Microsoft a fee when consumers purchase through the program.

Bing is an improvement over Live Search in that it provides more relevant results and presents them in a more appealing way, says Internet analyst Greg Sterling. “They’re doing a pretty good job of getting information in front of people on the first page of results,” Sterling says. “It’s a big improvement over where they were, and it will help them out.”

But he doesn’t see Microsoft challenging Google any time soon as the leading search engine. “Google is pretty entrenched and will be hard to knock off its perch in the near term,” he says. “More vulnerable might be Ask, AOL and possibly Yahoo.” Google accounted for 63.7% of searches in April, followed by Yahoo 20.5%, Microsoft Live Search 8.3%, Ask 3.8% and AOL 3.7%, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc.

Microsoft will try to convince consumers to switch to Bing with a major advertising campaign, estimated in published reports to have a budget of between $80 million and $100 million. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, speaking today at the All Things Digital conference in California, was asked how much Microsoft plans to spend promoting Bing. “Lots,” Ballmer replied. “When I approved the budget, I gulped, and a gulp in a $60 billion company, well, that’s a big gulp.”

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