In the latest development from the TechCrunch50 conference in SF, Microsoft's (MSFT) VP Yusuf Mehdi spent fifteen minutes explaining the wonders of its new search system, Bing, to the biggest concentration of Internet influencers in the U.S. The biggest news is that Bing will make it possible to search for products visually, a function that has been tried before, but not to any great effect. Microsoft has definitely done a better job.
Results sift automatically as users navigate a bunch of sliders that dictate price, brand and other variables. One problem with all this is that many customers won't necessarily want to search for a digital camera visually, and they certainly won't want to search among 1500 models.
On the other hand, in some contexts, the visual search will work very well. For example, Mehdi showed how a visual search for a handbag as a present could present the actual handbags, limit them down by prices, and offer side by side comparisons. Of course, TheFind.com already does this better, providing not only side-by-side comparisons, but also shipping costs and local outlets where users can buy the products. To add insult to injury, users must have Microsoft Silverlight installed on their machines if they wish to use Bing Visualsearch.
Another disappointing aspect was the preponderance of Bing Cashback buttons on the top search results. In fact, the top half of the screen was taken up by sponsored results. For many users, that's a huge turnoff. While these sorts of results help generate revenues, the decision to consume a large quantity of screen real estate seems designed to make many users angry, a move that is sure to undermine click-throughs.
The upshot? This is very interesting stuff. Microsoft is doing new things and definitely raising competition in the search game. It seems worth wondering if Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz (another speaker here) didn't choke on her coffee when she saw how hard Microsoft is going after her bacon. The two are now search partners with Bing powering Yahoo search results but Yahoo shopping has been a keystone for the company.
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