Monday, November 9, 2015

Getting intimate with Microsoft's Bing search engine

When google is not an option

bing-vs-google-review-2015
What is the most popular site? That is a pretty simple question to answer, Google is by far the most visited site on the internet. While that might be true in every other country in the world, China is that one exception as their Republic's internet communication with the outside world is filtered through the governments strict policies which restrict access to sites which do not obey their guidelines. Google in particular was filtered out of China's network because they were seemingly reluctant to block certain search terms which goes against the belief of China's government.

But while websites are an important part of the internet experience, being able to search for websites is more important in the sense of allowing the user to discover based on the search term. Google (and many other sites) might well be blocked in China but unsurprisingly, there are identical sets of alternatives built by the Chinese. Baidu in particular is probably the most visited site in China as it is basically a carbon copy of Google but in Chinese. While baidu.com is the go-to option in China, it is not exactly the best search engine for searching foreign content.

Basically, Baidu.com is developed for the Chinese market and the search engine itself is designed to filter through Chinese webpages and that's about it, there is no English or foreign version of Baidu available. So, if you are trying to get some proper English search results in China, you will need to turn to Google's biggest competition in the global market which is none other than Microsoft's Bing search engine which also powers Yahoo search.


Just like Google, Bing is also available in multiple languages which will suit users everywhere but that's not the point. Importantly, Bing alongside most of the Microsoft services are not blocked in China but in my experience, loading is not always the quickest compared to native Chinese services like Baidu and QQ. So, for the last two month, I have been using Bing as my primary search engine to look for information and the overall experience was quite OK.

Search results

Being able to get the desired set of links based on the search term being inputted in the search box is probably the most important aspect of the search engine. For the most part, Bing provided with the right results but that only happened half of the time. In the other half of the time, I would simply just blame the algorithm differences both companies implement. Talking about the differences just won't do, below here are some examples which I will elaborate further.

And before you say that China's network has blocked select websites being shown in the search results, I am running these searches through a VPN assuring that results shown are what everyone else sees. The rest of the results in the first page looks consistent.

Search term 1: 'iPad Pro'

bing-vs-google-ipad-pro-october-2015
Bing (left) vs Google (right) ; 20 October 2015
In this first comparison between Bing and Google, you can clearly see the search result layout for both services. The big annoyance with Bing is prevalent here, the first two results are ads which are somewhat unrelated to the search. The first link is actually about the iPad Pro but it's actually a link to the about.com search results for an iPad Pro. And probably the most distinct difference is that the official Apple product page is listed on the second half of the page, apparently the algorithm thinks that the tech blogs are more important than the official product page.

Another difference between the two in this scenario is that Bing doesn't list the images of the product and the only image on the page is of the new Surface Pro 4. Ironically, the news portion shows headlines of comparisons between the iPad Pro and Microsoft's own Surface Pro 4. Something to note is there are no interactive product cards for this query.

Search term 2: 'Surface Pro 4'

bing-vs-google-surface-pro-4-october-2015
Bing (left) vs Google (right) ; 20 October 2015
To see a bigger difference, searching a Microsoft product through Bing will show a similar look to the previous search term. But this time around, the news section jumps up to the top and the first link directs users to the official product page. An expected, there are more ads surfacing (no pun intended) on the results list.

Search tem 3: 'BMW'

bing-vs-google-bmw-october-2015
Bing (left) vs Google (right) ; 20 October 2015
For the final example, here's a neutral search which shows probably the biggest difference between both Bing and Google. We are all well accustomed with the cards being displayed on Google but Microsoft's algorithm somehow disables the displaying of info cards when you are not signed in to a Microsoft account (Typical Microsoft behavior).

Everything Else

Beyond all that fancy pansy algorithm which runs the backend operations, the style and features is also a determining factor when choosing a search engine. But the thing with these Bing features is that they will require you to sign-in with a Microsoft account to get these features and you will also need to have a US Microsoft account to get the full on experience.

Let's start with the basics, you have Bing Wallpapers which is a collection of meticulously chosen images sealed with the Bing branding and is updated every day. This feature is somewhat similar to Google's doodle which highlights a specific event on the default landing page. By default, Bing.com will display these images on the main landing page but if you are liking what you see, you can either download the specific image or install the Bing desktop application which automatically rotates your desktop wallpaper to the current Bing wallpaper.

But as these examples below, Microsoft has yet to streamline the new full screen background Bing homepage with a non-US Microsoft account.
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Bing with a Microsoft account signed in
bing-account-incognito-mode
Bing in incognito mode
Unlike both Google and Baidu, Microsoft has opted to provide live information through the main landing page on Bing. Besides a different Bing wallpaper every day, there is also a persistent carousel on the bottom of the page which is updated from time to time to display the latest headlines all around the world. I am not too sure if these headlines are localized but it would indefinitely keep you updated on what's currently going on.
Bing desktop review, more than just a search engine — Bing desktop is an official program from Microsoft which supports systems running Windows XP and above. Microsoft doesn't actually pre-install this application onto Windows PCs nor do they even promote the program whatsoever. Continue reading. 
Back in 2012, Microsoft rebranded Bing by giving it a new logo which looks a bit more squared off compared to the rounded approach that the old logo used. But the actual search results page remained the same (I think?). Internet search is generally the same throughout Google, Bing and Baidu but comparing how the search results are shown on Bing compared to Google, there is a slight difference.

At first, I didn't quite notice the difference but it was apparent once I opened Bing and Google side by side, everything became clear. While the results themselves show the page title alongside the meta tag, Bing actually highlights the search term making it a little easier to spot. Notice in the image below that 'Mcdonald's' is highlighted throughout the page.
bing-search-highlighting-desktop-chrome

Conclusion

For the most part, I have been using Microsoft's Bing search engine to answer some of my questions. All in all, you should get a better experience if you sign in to your outlook and gmail accounts on the respective servicers which will provide you with a personalized search result. Particularly with Microsoft's Bing search and I am still provocative with Microsoft's US exclusivity with products.

Would I choose to use Bing when Google is available, sadly the answer is no because sometimes I feel that it does not give me what I am looking for and the ads on Bing seems to bug me more compared to Google. In the mean time, I think I will stick with Googling all the information and continue using Bing as a secondary choice when I need more opinions on information.

But what I would hope that Microsoft would do in the future is to open up more features to non-us Bing sites especially for the information cards. Also it would be nice to see Cortana being implemented inside of Bing rather than being browser dependent.

Insider talk

This was a particularly interesting article to write about because the experience of surfing the internet under China's firewall made everything different. While this article mainly focuses on the search results that Bing displays in comparison with Google, I will push out an article or two about the internet experience in China on the following weeks ahead.