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Ballmer Ushers In Microsoft's Bing

Microsoft Bing
Bing's home page. Source: Microsoft
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CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer takes the long view on both the world economy and Microsoft's efforts to increase its market share in search.

Speaking on stage here at the D: All Things Digital Conference with co-host Walt Mossberg, Ballmer said that we're in a "different recession," and that it seems "naïve" to think that the economy will recover in the next year.

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) itself has had to respond by scaling back planned investments in research and development. It's still putting money into R&D, as the company has previously maintained, but it's not increasing its spend.

One area the company clearly has expanded, however, is search. On stage today, Ballmer unveiled the company's newest effort as it rebrands Live Search as "Bing."

The new and long-expected search engine, which will go live on June 3, attempts to differentiate itself from industry leader Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) by offering answers rather than just links to Web sites.

Ballmer demonstrated this by searching for "San Diego" and, rather than getting links to sites with useful information about the city 31 miles down the road from the conference, the site showed current weather, hotel information and other factoids about the city.

The idea is that by making it easier and faster for searchers to get the information they seek -- by including it on the search results page instead of requiring users to click through to Web sites -- Microsoft can gain some more traction in the search market, where it's a distant third behind Google and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO).

"Look, we're obviously where we are in search and we want to do better," Ballmer said during his onstage question-and-answer session with Mossberg. "We're hoping to be one of the companies that moves the industry forward."

Regarding Live Search's new moniker, "We needed a name that says this is all about search," Ballmer said. "This is a very important step ... it's not a substitute for innovation, but we need to build brand equity in addition to technology equity."

Arms race with Google

Microsoft has found ways to keep people at Bing.com as much as possible, going so far as to provide preview of articles on information sites as well as tools to purchase products or content from within Bing. If you search for products, you are likely to find listings that include photos, prices from online merchants selling it as well as links for detailed product information and both customer and expert reviews.

The conference audience reacted excitedly when Ballmer pointed out that a customer support number is one of the pieces of information that pops up when you perform a search for a company.

Of course, Bing, which had previously been codenamed "Kumo," also returned links to relevant Web sites in its search results.

When Bing does show sites, Ballmer said the search engine tries to make the authoritative site its first result. "United," could of course, bring up United.com as the first hit -- though that's generally also true with Google.

One additional feature of Bing is the ability to hover over a result to get more information and, potentially, a preview before you click. If your search is for videos, you can see and hear a snippet by hovering over the image.

In addition to video and shopping, links on the front page also let you search for images, news, and travel.

For all of Bing's Web search leader Google has also been making strides to integrate more information scraped from Web sites into its own search results. In recent weeks, the company showed off its support for "rich snippets" -- which embeds data from Web sites that Google believes will be useful to searchers.

For instance, a search for a product like a specific camera, for example, would include a snippet of a four-stars product review from a Web site that rated the product. Similarly, a search for a person might show a rich snippet of text with a line from their LinkedIn profile, so you know it's the right one to click on.