Microsoft's new search engine, Bing, is the first real competitor to Google.
I rarely use Google. Or rather, I rarely use Google.com. Because Google is embedded into Safari, I just use the search box there, which creates huge stickiness that's hard to displace. Of course, Microsoft has the same option now for embedding Bing into Internet Explorer, assuming it's allowed to by the courts. But the very short amount of time I've spent with Bing has me rethinking my search engine options seriously for the first time.
I know a lot of people gush about Google's user experience, and certainly there are a lot of nice things about using it: speed, accuracy of results, and things like weather, which give instant contextual results. But from an aesthetic point of view I've found its minimalism to be on the drab side, rather than the chic side. It's utilitarian, not fancy, and mostly not that fun.
Bing has had the courage to say "to hell with eking out the last millisecond of page load time," which both Google and, historically, Yahoo have always emphasized. In today's world, and moving forward, it's just not that important (mobile being an exception, but for that you can provide a custom experience).
Rafe Needleman at CNET Webware and Katherine Boehret at WSJ both have good write-ups on the niceties of Bing, so I won't repeat them here. It does some things differently than Google, breaking some ingrained habits, and while there isn't much that's significantly worse, there is quite a bit that is considerably better. The results that come back are somewhat different, sometimes more on target, sometimes not. I'd say the jury's out on that, especially since this is a just-launched service (assuming it's not just a reskin of Live, I don't know what's under the hood), and assuming it will improve as users contribute with clicks. (Like Google, it lists this blog as the top search when I self-search, so that's a plus.)
It presents the search results in a nicer way than Google, especially image search (multisize thumbnails and grids, different choices of detail, filters by image size, colors, etc., and overall a presentation that focuses on the images themselves). I love how sounds and videos are embedded into search results and how there's a mouse-over for a small preview. Hovering over the right edge of a search result description pulls up more information without having to click through to the page.
I like that the front cover photo changes each day and how you can float over it to find the hidden Easter eggs that lead you on unexpected paths (one is shown popped up in the bottom right of the above image). Ask.com tried the splash-image approach but that was more of a skin, but Bing's approach is more engaging and encourages you to actually visit the front page, rather than bypass it as quickly as possible to get to the results.
Bing avoids two traps: One, it doesn't just try to ape Google. Two, Microsoft hasn't overstyled it and thrown in the kitchen sink of aesthetics and functionality. There is clearly an editorial hand at work that hasn't allowed it to get focus-grouped to death. Kudos to Microsoft for that.
I'm going to drop Bing into my toolbar bookmarks and give it a whirl for a while. Who knows, maybe it will be enough to displace the 800-pound gorilla.