Bing 2? Microsoft Debuts Visual Search Engine

SAN FRANCISCO — As it looks to ratchet up competition with market leader Google, Microsoft today unveiled an upgrade to its Bing search engine, featuring a way to “pivot” results to deliver a more visual search experience.

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has touted the work it has done in specific vertical markets, particularly shopping and travel, to give consumers faster results to common queries like pricing and product information.

In a demonstration here at the TechCrunch50 conference, Microsoft Senior Vice President Yusuf Mehdi showed how one click on a search for digital cameras produced a scrollable screen of 1,500 different camera models. Users can get brief product specs simply by hovering the mouse pointer on any of the models or clicking through for more related search options.

The Visual Search site, currently available as a beta release, went live this morning shortly after Mehdi’s presentation. The home page features a set of “Visual Search Galleries” of popular search categories.

Clicking on an image of Barack Obama above the caption “U.S. Politicians” opens a photo gallery of elected officials. As with the product comparison page, hovering over the images brings up information about the politicians. A left hand column displays sub-categories for further research, such as “Line of Succession” and “President’s Cabinet.”

“The whole concept is that search is changing,” said Mehdi, who oversees Bing and Microsoft’s MSN online businesses. “It’s not just keywords and a URL anymore.”

First impressions

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has made speed a cornerstone of its search engine, which typically serves up results in fractions of a second.

In brief early tests of Microsoft’s Bing Visual Search by, various image galleries took seconds to load. For example, an image gallery of 125 cell phones took about nine seconds to resolve on the screen, though that process of watching each image resolve had minor novelty appeal.

But it’s one thing to get quick results, and quite another to get the results you want.

On the speed issue, Microsoft might argue that getting the right results on the first try can be better than near-instant results that are served up as blue links with little or no context.

The new Bing features got a thumbs up from a panel of tech investors critiquing each presentation here.

“Visual can be very powerful in the right context,” said Israeli entrepreneur Yossi Vardi. “This is a good paradigm that should be implemented where the user needs the images.”

Don Dodge, Microsoft’s director of business development, was predictably bullish on Bing. He agreed with Vardi’s point that visual elements can be effective, but said they only work for certain types of searches.

“I’ve seen twenty or thirty attempts at visual search over years,” Dodge said. “It works great for things like shopping, travel and movies, but not in other cases.”

Veteran Silicon Valley technology investor Ron Conway said he liked the more visual navigation and thinks it’ll get Google’s attention. “Competition breeds innovation,” he said. “This is a huge winner for consumers.”

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