What finally broke me was the recipes.
On July 1, I abandoned Google search and committed myself instead to Bing. I downloaded the Bing app on my phone. I made it the default search mode in Chrome. (I didn’t switch to Edge, Microsoft’s browser, because I decided to limit this experiment strictly to search.) Since then, for the most part, any time I’ve asked the internet a question, Bing has answered.
A stunt? Sure, a little. But also an earnest attempt to figure out how the other half—or the other 6 percent overall, or 24 percent on desktop, or 33 percent in the US, depending on whose numbers you believe—finds their information online.
And Bing is big! The second-largest search engine by market share in the US, and one of the 50 most visited sites on the internet, according to Alexa rankings. (That’s the Amazon-owned analytics site, not the Amazon-made voice assistant.) I wanted to know how those people experienced the web, how much of a difference it makes when a different set of algorithms decides what knowledge you should see. The internet is a window on the world; a search engine warps and tints it.
There’s also never been a better time to give Bing an honest appraisal. If Google’s data-hoovering didn’t creep you out before, its attitude toward location tracking and Google+ privacy failings should. And while privacy-focused search options like DuckDuckGo go further to solve that problem, Bing is the most full-featured alternative out there. It’s the logical first stop on the express train out of Googletown.
A minor spoiler: This isn’t an excuse to dunk on Bing. It’s also not an extended “Actually, Bing Is Good” counterpoint. It’s just one person’s attempt to figure out what Bing is today, and why.
Bing Bang Boom
Let’s start with the Bing app, technically Microsoft Bing Search. This almost certainly isn’t how most people experience Microsoft’s search engine, but the app does have over five million downloads in the Google Play Store alone. People use it. Besides, what better way to evaluate Bing than drinking it up in its most distilled form?
Bing offers a maximalist counterpoint to the austerity of Google, whose search box sits unadorned, interrupted only for the occasional doodle reminder of a 19th century physicist’s birthday. When you open the Bing app, the act of searching is almost incidental. A high-resolution, usually scenic photograph sweeps the display, with three icons—a camera, a magnifying glass, and a microphone—suggesting but not insisting on the different types of search you might enjoy. Below that, options: Videos. Near Me. News. Restaurants. (Side-scroll a bit.) Movies. Music. Fun. Images. Gas.
These are the categories Bing considers worthy of one-tap access in 2018. And honestly, why not? I like videos. I like fun.
What lurks behind those taps, though, varies wildly in usefulness. In mid-August, a dive into Videos yielded, in this order: “Crowds in France React as France wins the world Cup,” “Genius sport hacks. 👌,” “Melania Trump Responds to Omarosa’s Book,” “everything is terrible so here’s a baby lion cub learning to roar,” and “WT actual F.” It’s a strange mix, like time-traveling to your lonely uncle’s Facebook News Feed six weeks ago.
Music shows a grid of “trending songs”—or swipe right for “trending artists”—which you can tap to see lyrics. Tap again, and Bing takes you to YouTube (on the web, not the app; Bing does not like bouncing you to apps, which turns out to be more annoying than you’d think). You can also just scroll through Bing search results for a given song, most of which are also lyrics.
Near Me, on the other hand, offers some genuinely interesting options. It lists the standard collection of restaurants and local attractions, but also includes “Deals Near Me,” powered by DealCatcher, which alerted me that if I downloaded the Wendy’s app I could partake of a buy one, get one free offer on chicken tenders a mile up the road. (I did not.) Near Me also features maybe Bing’s neatest trick. If you tap the blue dot that says “360º,” Bing activates your rear camera, and overlays the location and distances of various nearby establishments on whatever you point it at. It’s like navigating an open world video game, except it’s the actual open world.
And then there’s Fun. Fun! What to say about Fun, a parallel internet universe where casual gaming on AOL never died. You can play Chess, or Sudoku, or an online jigsaw puzzle. You can take a celebrity quiz or a news quiz or a geography quiz. There’s a matching game, and a Rubik’s cube. You can play something called “Put in order,” which I imagine is pretty straightforward.
But wait, yes, there’s more. Below the traditional search and the retrograde Fun, Bing places an infinite scroll of news stories. (On desktop, you’ll also get more info about that day’s splash image, previous homepage shots, and a “This Day in History” roundup.) In the spirit of show, don’t tell, here are the first few headlines Bing greeted me with on June 22, the day I downloaded the app:
- See Dancing With the Stars’ Jenna Johnson’s STUNNING Engagement Ring
- New iPhone Leak Reveals Apple’s Nasty Surprise
- This 20-Minute Pimple Popping Video Will Give You Nightmares
- Knicks Star Kristaps Porzingis Nursing Inured ACL with Hot Bikini Babe
It felt less like a curated news selection—algorithmically or otherwise—and more like an Outbrain fever dream. Initially, I wondered if that was because I had no search history with Bing, and it responded to a blank canvas by splattering whatever paint was nearest at hand. But familiarity did not breed success. A mid-July check-in yielded the following:
- An ordinary rabbit hole on a farmer’s land revealed mysterious caves that includ…
- The REAL Reason Jana ‘Cinderella’ Duggar Never Got Married Like Her Younger…
- FERS retirement mode: a checklist
- Cold case church murder suspect kills self as police serve warrant
And so on. A Microsoft spokesperson says that Bing deploys a combination of “algorithm signals” and human editors, who take into account both live search activity and real-time news events.
I think it’s important to establish that at no time did I stumble upon any of these infobursts in the natural course of searching. If I weren’t actively poking and prodding Bing’s features, I likely never would have found them. Which reveals less about how the features work than what purpose they serve.
Bing appears to want, both on desktop and in its app, to be not just a search engine but a portal. That makes sense if you want to differentiate yourself from Google, but less so when you remember that it’s not 2002. My searches don’t happen in an app or on a website, they happen in a URL bar. As they should—the act of searching is a constant sidebar to whatever it is you’re actually doing. Bing wants to be a destination, but search is a thruway. Spending even a second longer than necessary there is like getting on the New Jersey Turnpike to visit the Clara Barton rest stop.
Similarly, I did not much use Bing Visual Search, Microsoft’s answer to Google Lens, although I can confirm it accurately identified an Infiniti QX SUV that I passed on the road. Ditto Bing’s voice search. I tested them both out of due diligence, and they seem fine. But forcing myself to use the Bing app mostly reminded me that search apps—no matter who makes them—only add a layer of friction to the ideally instantaneous process of think —> search —> know.
Google obviously has an app, as well, which also shoves weather and headlines underneath a search bar, and offers voice search. I don’t use it much, either. But at least when I do, it knows enough about me, through years of my blindly handing over information and interests to Google, to serve up a tailored experience. Google knows I’m an Orioles fan, so the app shows me scores during the season. (When in doubt, they lost.) It knew I was going to Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend, so it linked me to a Fodor’s travel guide.
Maybe, given enough time and attention, Bing would have that same level of insight into my online psyche. But I’m not prepared to give it that long, because it hasn’t given me a reason to. And because it does some things that drive me nuts.
I’d originally hoped to string insightful or hilarious anecdotes throughout my Bingapalooza, but I quickly realized something I should have known all along: Search is search is search. Which is to say, if you want to find something online, Bing will almost certainly get the job done.
Would you have found it faster on Google? Would another search engine show you the perfect link first instead of fifth? Maybe. For the bulk of my Bing expatriation, I avoided Google entirely, but I switched to Google on mobile toward the end. I’ve stuck with Bing on desktop. I’d like to say it was for comparison’s sake, but mostly it’s because I still haven’t gotten around to changing the settings on my laptop.
For the most part, Bing’s results were never so wrong that I had to switch back. There’s one consistent exception to this, which I’ll write off as a narrow use case: Bing is terrible at finding specific WIRED articles from the past few years, something I need to do daily in the course of writing and editing stories. Even specifying the writer, the site, and a few words from the headline wasn’t enough sometimes. Help.
In some ways, I actually preferred the way Bing coughed things up. Anecdotally, it feels less burdened with ads. It also doesn’t pluck nearly as much info from sites, strip them of context, and present them as search results. (Bing does do this occasionally, with the kind of mixed results seen below.) I know Google does this to save you time, but its “featured snippets” function has presented outlandish conspiracy theories as facts, and have helped drive sites out of business. Those aren’t the kinds of efficiencies I want to enable.
Bing can be a little slow on the uptake. The day Netflix premiered its original animated film Duck Duck Goose, for instance, a Bing search for “duck duck goose netflix” led off with IMDB and Wikipedia results for a 2005 short film of the same name. (“’Duck, Duck, GOOSE!’ has no explosions or boobies,” the featured IMDB snippet begins.) A few months later, that same search yields better results. But the so-called Bing Knowledge panel—the equivalent of Google’s Knowledge Graph info box, which floats to the right of the main list of results—still highlights the short film for some reason.
Bing does not always get you where you want to go, though. In fact, it keeps you locked into Bing in strange and frustrating ways. And it’s that, more than anything, that sent me back to Google.
Take videos. In fact, let’s go back to Duck Duck Goose, mostly because I still have the Bing search result for it open in a tab. Pretty high on the page, you hit “Videos of duck duck goose netflix,” followed by three thumbnails of trailers. Bing tells you it sourced them from YouTube, but when you click on one, it takes you to the video, playing on a weird Bing wrapper page. Actually getting to YouTube requires another click from there. This is, again, not the end of the world. But I can’t think of any way this actually helps me. Bing insists on itself in a way that feels unseemly.
This carries over to other corners, as well. Bing news results will sometimes pop you over not to the site that produced the story, but an MSN.com version of that page. (Microsoft owns both Bing and MSN.) Why? The Google corollary here, I guess, are the mobile-optimized AMP pages that sites (including WIRED) offer. But AMP stories at least feel recognizably from the sites that produced them. Not so those absorbed by MSN.
Bing also has more urgent problems that I never personally encountered. As tech site How To Geek recently reported, it gave racist, antisemitic, and otherwise awful search prompts, even with SafeSearch enabled. Google has had its share of racist results, along with objectionable autocomplete suggestions, but it seems to have worked through the most blatant of these issues a few years ago. Everyone uses Google, after all. People are quicker to spot the problems, and Google is quicker to rectify them.
“We take matters of offensive content very seriously and continue to enhance our systems to identify and prevent such content from appearing as a suggested search,” said Jeff Jones, a senior director at Microsoft, in a statement provided to WIRED. “As soon as we become aware of an issue, we take action to address it.”
You can see Bing’s growing pains in other instances as well; this summer, a search for “fortnite android” yielded multiple malware results on Bing, including in the top slot. Even this week, the front page of results for “pokémon go android” included a handful of scammy links. (In fairness, Google showed one suspect result as well, but it’s generally safer clicking.) It’s worth noting, too, that for all the kerfuffle over Google mulling a censored search engine for China, Bing already operates there, albeit with negligible market share. Again, these aren’t things I can speak to from personal experience, but they all play into a fuller evaluation of Bing.
And then, finally, there were the recipes. My approach to getting dinner ready generally involves some quick refrigerator and pantry reconnaissance, then typing whatever ingredients I have on hand into a search box, and looking for keywords like “easy” and “one pot” and “cheese” before settling on a recipe. It’s an imperfect science, but it works, especially if you’re into casseroles.
For the entire summer and most of the fall, I repeated this process with Bing, which would return promising-looking recipes from sites I trust. A good start! But when I clicked on that link, Bing would not, as you might expect, take me to AllRecipes or Delish or wherever else. It would instead expand the search results to show the full list of ingredients. Actually getting to the site required another click, on a very tiny “Read full directions at…” link.
Bing insists on itself in a way that feels unseemly.
I have two caveats here. First, as of October it appears that Bing has changed how it handles recipe results; the behavior described above still takes place in a top carousel of search returns, but the rest of the page behaves much more rationally. (A Microsoft spokesperson would say only that company is always testing new features.) That’s good! Progress is great. Second, typing the above paragraph felt like complaining about a modest hangnail, or a warm beer. On the long list of any life’s problems—or even of Bing’s problems, given the racist search suggestion revelations—how Bing handles recipe search results sits very low.
And yet! It’s what did me in. It’s a small frustration, but repeating it several times a week, every month, added up. The prospect of repeating that with video and news results, even sporadically, was enough to send me running.
At its best, search is invisible. Any imposition of distance between where you are and where you want to be feels like an insult, a waste of time that you’re frankly already wasting by being so online in the first place. It’s not a place to linger.
Bing has some things going for it, and it genuinely tries to advance the conversation of what search can do, particularly in its app. Good! Google needs whatever competition the rest of the world can muster. But in terms of day-to-day usability, at least in my experience, it too often added confusion rather than strip it away. It kept me cloistered within Bing, when all I wanted—what I explicitly told it, with every query—was to go somewhere else. In search, the journey is not the reward; it’s just a journey.
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