Bing – Inconsistently Anticipating User Needs

I noticed an interesting thing while playing with Microsoft’s Bing web search — certain terms return a results page with only one result. Well, that’s different.

A Bing search for Google returned a results page with one result ( labeled “Best match”. Beneath that was link to “Search for other results containing google”. While this is inconsistent with the other search engines people are familiar with, I think it’s a good example of anticipating users’ needs. Most people searching for something other than Google’s homepage would likely use more than just one term, for example “google jobs” or “google stock price”.

What I don’t like is how Bing inconsistently applies this rule.

Searches for several major global brands were handled differently than Google. Searches for Apple, Nike, Motorola, Sony, Coca Cola, Budweiser, Playboy, and Paris Hilton all returned standard search results pages, with either a “Best match” followed the full list of results or a set of image search results (Motorola and Paris Hilton) followed by standard search results. Perhaps the standard results page is used when the search algorithm doesn’t rank the top result high enough on some other internal relevancy scale. But that wasn’t clear to me and made the interaction with Bing a bit confusing.

Switching from consumer brands to baseball I searched for New York Yankees. The search returned the current box score of the Yankees-Devil Rays game followed by a standard results page. Sports team searches do deserve a different treatment since fans are often looking for the latest scores. When I searched for Chicago White Sox, I got the box score for the Sox-Twins game followed by a standard results page. The same was true when I searched for their crosstown rivals the Cubs.

When I searched for the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose game that night had not yet started, I got a page with no box scores and standard search results. What was odd was that in all three baseball searches the official team site was the top result, but it was not labeled “Best match”. I again wonder if some internal relevancy threshold that was not met by the highest ranked result.

Moving to newspapers a search for New York Times returns the single link results page with a twist — a link to news stories labeled “Top headlines” and a search within the Times text box. I got the same results page design I searched for Chicago Tribune. This would be helpful for someone searching for a particular online media site.

Moving to media and content portals outside of newspapers, I tried MSN, Yahoo, AOL, and CNN. MSN, Yahoo, and AOL got the special one link plus search box page. CNN, however, only returned the Best match and top headlines with no search within box.

Looking at social media sites, Facebook and MySpace got the special one link treatment, but only MySpace got a search within box. Twitter got a standard results page plus search within text box. Meebo got a standard results page.

Technology brands Dell, HP, Compaq, Sun, Oracle, Linux, Firefox, and Microsoft, all returned one of the previously seen variations of a standard results page (with or without search within or Best match). Ironically the Microsoft search did not have the top result (Microsoft’s homepage) labeled as a Best match or a search within box.

Searches for online retailers yielded more consistent results. Sears, Crate and Barrel, Gap, and Amazon all returned a standard results page, as did Staples, CDW, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart (most with search within boxes). One difference was most the searches for the bricks and mortar retailers all had a map of the stores nearest my location with addresses and phone numbers.

There were many other cases where Bing offered content of value to the searcher beyond the standard results page we are familiar with. It makes sense that searches for sports teams in active play return results with boxed scores, that newspaper searches include a search box and links to top headlines, and searches for retailers include a map to store locations, especially if the behavioral data shows that’s the content most people are looking for when doing those searches. This kind of content is nothing new as Google has long handled its searches this way.

Providing valuable content and removing clutter is useful, but the on-again off-again Best match label and the inconsistent use of the one-link results page may leave some users wondering what they are doing wrong. Bing needs to improve on that.

Take a look at an interesting site that shows side-by-side comparisons of Google and Bing. It’s a nice way to compare how the two sites handle the same search.

Bing also has a page that explains a little of what’s behind Best match.