Bing vs. Google face-off, round 5
After last week's scuffle with filtered image results, we left our two major Web search engines in a tie-up, with the score Bing 3, Google 3 after six heats. For the tie breaker for this week, we're going to throw a curve ball.
A great search engine has to be responsive and helpful and informative for someone who is completely in the dark, not only about the topic he's interested in, but about the nature of the Internet. Some of our comments this week have taken us to task for not using the smartest queries -- for instance, one person asked, why couldn't someone have searched on IMDB.com for Rod Taylor instead of on Google or Bing? The answer there is, IMDB may be no better than either Bing or Google at helping someone locate an actor based on minimal information. We created a "backwards" query for this test because that's the type of query inquisitive folks may very well create for themselves.
Earlier this week, when Microsoft unveiled Bing a few days earlier than scheduled, its promotions touched on its special attention to detail about medical questions. All over the net, the response to that pitch has been that folks who really want medical answers will know to go to WebMD or someplace that specializes in such answers. And these days, that might actually be correct. If you don't know to go to WebMD or have never heard of it, chances are that Google and Bing would probably send you there in the first page of search results.
But that's assuming your medical question...is about humans. Quick, what's the best source of information for veterinary topics? You may not know who's the "WebMD for dogs and cats," and if you just searched through a catalog of animal health sites, you might get a lot of candidates but few solid answers. Some folks will try to sift through all the nonsense and get to the point right away, by posing a veterinary query to a major search engine and see which sites respond to it first and best.
I did mention a "curve ball." Since Bing and Google are both supposedly so impressive at finding health news and information for and about people, can they help a person who's searching for a topic that could just as easily, if not more so, pertain to a human than a cat? What if, say, a cat owner and novice Web user wanted information about cat allergies? Not allergies to cats, but allergies that cats may have. What kind of hoops would Google and Bing make the user jump through to find pertinent results?
The most obvious query of all, cat allergies, will return results from both search engines that are about four-fifths weighted in favor of allergies to cats. And in fairness, that query could very well refer to allergies to cats; it wouldn't be incorrect, so both Bing and Google make fair guesses. But what can the user do to make his query more accurate and more productive...without becoming a computer science major?
Though more and more people know about being able to exclude a search term by typing a hyphen, or a "minus," in front of it, there's not an easy way to exclude the concept of people from subject matter. So cat allergies -people doesn't exclude humans from the subject, although we were surprised that it did change the weight of the retrieved entries to about half-and-half. The first four of Bing's top five responses were about allergies in cats, as opposed to #1, #3, and #4 for Google -- giving Bing a very slight lead.
Historically, prepositions such as "in" and "of," and grammatical articles such as "the," are excluded from most search queries. In recent years, Google has changed its algorithm in an obvious way so that pattern matches that do contain these lesser words, are scored higher. So the type of logic you might use to make a subject clearer to a person -- explaining that this is an allergy in the cat rather than to the cat -- makes sense to Google. Though the results weren't perfect, changing the query to allergies in cats shoved four topical matches to the front of the list, including items that were not direct pattern matches, including "Allergy Problems in Cats."
For Bing, the same adjustment produced the opposite result, with in the first four returns concerning allergies to cats, and only the #5 result concerning the cat itself. That's one of those cases where adjusting the query produces the opposite of the expected effect, like searching for nearby Wi-Fi hotspots taking you instead to a list of hi-fi dealers in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. That one was pretty silly, and just evoking memories of that little incident put Google back in the lead.
Maybe you've already thought of this, but the best way to make the query more direct and specific is by evoking a little Latin, changing the query to feline allergies. Now, it should be obvious to anyone what we're expecting to locate, and as expected, the first two pages of results from both Bing and Google deal entirely with allergies in cats. The downside of that is that not all the good pages -- the ones retrieved with the less specific query -- show up on top, mainly because their authors weren't too concerned with search engine optimization: specifically, they didn't think to use the phrase "feline allergies" either. Both Bing and Google were apparently able to semantically equate "cat" with "feline," but the good pages that we found earlier that concentrated on just "cat" were pushed way down both lists. (Unfortunately, one of Bing's first-page results used "feline allergies" in its headline, and yet was about allergies to cats...although that's not Bing's fault.)
Most folks would have found something good by now from either search engine, though the insatiable might make one more try at specificity. When we changed the query to diagnosing feline allergies, the top 74 results returned by Google were all about allergies in cats. When your results are that good, not a lot of folks will need to skim down to page 8 of the results anyway.
Meanwhile, once again, making things seemingly clearer for Bing has the opposite result: Item #2 from Bing's retrieval was clearly and poignantly entitled, "Help! I'm Allergic to the Cat." It's not just the author of that article who's crying for help; as the list went on, for unexplained reasons, some entries dealt with allergies to dogs. Here, making the change that was sensible to people, and sensible to Google, led to a less sensible result from Bing.
The reason up to now that Windows Live Search hasn't made much of a dent against Google is because Google's results feel better to the user. It provides sensible tools, and responds in more of a manner that someone might expect. When you're more specific, more often than any other competitor to date, Google knows what you mean. And that minor edge, that little touch of reason, may be what keeps Google on top for the foreseeable future. We leave our face-off for this week with the score Google 4, Bing 3, with Google this week's victor. But this won't be the end of our face-offs, as we'll certainly have these two meet again as Bing makes improvements -- or at least what Microsoft will call improvements -- as well as have it meet some other competition in the coming days.