Tag Archives: Live.com

Bing UK Round Table Meeting

Hashtag: #meetbing

Twelve bloggers, including myself and Phil Bradley, were invited to the round table meeting with Microsoft Bing in London on the evening of June 29th. The aim of the event, according to the email correspondence that preceded it, was to outline Microsoft’s plans for Bing in the UK and to obtain feedback and opinions from us. It wasn’t so much ’round table’ as around several tables. Laptops, netbooks and iphones came out at the start of the meeting and we all jostled for positions near power sockets. We were actively encouraged to tweet and blog before, during and after the event to our respective communities in order to spread the word and to elicit feedback from colleagues and friends. And we were provided with free wi-fi. This was definitely a step in the right direction and very different from similar search engine events that I have attended where you do not get through the door unless you have signed a non-disclosure agreement in blood, and you end up in a room that turns out to be a Faraday cage. So full marks to Microsoft on this aspect of the meeting.

The plan was to have a presentation followed by a break, then another session with, I think, questions and feedback throughout. It started off according to timetable with an outline of what Microsoft is doing with Bing. As many UK searchers had already noticed the US version of Bing is very different from the one we have in the UK, which is still in beta. Microsoft wanted to “get traction” in the US first before developing the other country versions further. For example, they hope to be rolling out spell checking of queries in a few weeks.

They then produced some statistics, one of which stated that only 1 in 4 searches delivers a successful result. I questioned where this data had come from and was told it had been collected from MSN search and the toolbar in IE. This then raised the question of how valid their data really is. It was soon after this that the programme fell apart as the questions started to flow fast and furious.

One question was about the size of the Bing index. The Microsoft people dod not seem too sure about this but came up with a figure of approximately 10 billion pages. This surprised me as there have been several occasions when Live, Bing’s predecessor, has come up with unique pages that were not in either Google’s or Yahoo’s index. The index may be smaller, they said, but they are concentrating on quality – although no clues as to how they are doing that – and using humans and neural networks for “training” the ranking algorithms. They believe they will provide search results as relevant to Google in the UK in a few months. One piece of jargon that went completely over my head was tweeted by @leggetter: Microsoft are using NDCG to determine their search result relevance. If like me you haven’t a clue what that is, take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NDCG. In practice, people don’t care about the technology behind the results they just want relevant stuff on that first page and that is what is going to convince people that Bing is worth using.

Microsoft confirmed that they are concentrating on the consumer market, which is obvious from the “verticals” that they are promoting in the US, for example suggesting hotels, comparing airline flight prices, comparing prices for various products. When I asked if they were going to provide a proper advanced search screen, they repeated their mantra of “concentrating on the consumer market” the implication being that “consumers” don’t need advanced search. I beg to differ. Google and Yahoo’s main audience is the consumer market. That is where they make  their money, but they still have a decent advanced search screen. Yes, you can do advanced search on Bing such as restricting to filetype but you have to know the commands. Most people acquire their searching preferences and skills at school, university, work or in the public library. If you get stuck you ask a colleague, the librarian or someone in the information centre what to do next. They may suggest a different search tool or show you how to use the advanced search screen boxes on Google or Yahoo. Filling in boxes is far easier for many people than having to remember and type in command line prefixes. And what people learn and find useful at school or in the workplace they continue to use when they search at home.

It was around this point in the discussion that Phil Bradley said  “Nothing new here, nothing that excites me, nothing that is innovative”. And I have to agree with him. UK Bing at present is simply a rebadged version of Live.com. The Microsoft people admitted that it is not as good as it  should be but affirmed their commitment to its development long term. We shall have to wait and see. The UK team obviously passionately believes in the product but Microsoft does not have a good track record when it comes to following through on new initiatives. Academic Live was far superior to Google Scholar and its Live Books had content and advanced search features that Google Books did not. Both services were axed in May 2008.

And finally there is the issue of censorship. Phil Bradley has repeatedly raised this with Bing directly, via his blog and on Twitter but so far has had no satisfactory response, and the Bing people at the meeting did not seem to know what is going on. For background on this see Phil’s blog postings The Microsoft Bing MeetingBing: excluding results from UK version? and More on Bing removing UK content.

Overall, I am not sure what to make of the meeting. I suspect that Bing were expecting to be able do a straightforward sales pitch with a few easy questions from a tame audience, which we most definitely were not! I must congratulate the Bing people, though, for the cool way in which they handled the meeting. There was a lot of scribbling of notes on their side and promises to look into our concerns and questions. I had received several questions and comments from friends and colleagues but there was not enough time to raise them at the meeting itself.  Apart from the ridiculously short amount of time available to us  – we had two and a half hours  – there was a mixture of web developers, web 2.0 gurus and serious web searchers (Phil Bradley and myself) at the event and most of us had long lists of questions. I would definitely attend a second meeting but it would be more productive if they had separate events for developers and searchers.

So would I recommend Bing as a search tool? Yes, but purely because I have always included Live.com in my list of essential search engines and Live now redirects to Bing. Bing is different from Live in the way it handles results but for some of my business searches it still sometimes pulls up unique results. (I will look at Bing search results in more detail in a separate posting). Is it a Google beater? I would love to see Bing give Google a run for its money but I can’t see it happening at present.

Other blog postings on the meeting include The Microsoft Bing Meeting, Phil Leggetter – Microsoft Bing.com round table thoughts, Bing Roundtable: Where was the innovation? : David Stuart, Web Reflection: UK Bing Roundtable – Just My Opinion. Apologies if I have missed anyone.

Bing – don’t bother!

Bing.com has launched and I just cannot believe that Microsoft have made so much fuss over something that is no better than the existing Live.com. The UK version is labelled as beta and the US one as “Preview” so is there more coming soon as is suggested by Microsoft/Bing in their blogs? I sincerely hope so because so far this “decision engine” does not live up to the hype.

Phil Bradley has already reviewed Bing and I agree entirely with everything he has said.  The home page is reminiscent of the old Ask home page that allowed you to “skin” the page with an image. I like the snow leopard that is on the UK version but if I should get bored with it, I can’t change it.

My test web searches came up with results that were mostly identical with those from Live.com. For some of them, for example my search on car ownership UK, Bing puts a fact or a statistic at the top of the page. In this case it came up with 510 cars per 1000 people, a statistic apparently from the International Road Federation but 2004 data! The Advanced Search is as pathetic as ever, but you can use search commands such as ‘filetype: ‘ and ‘site:’ in the standard search box.

The image search is virtually the same as Live’s with minor changes to the layout.  The Shopping option takes UK users to Ciao.co.uk (very confusing), News is as useless as before, and Maps takes you to Multimap. Much more interesting is the Google-type maps option at http://maps.live.com/ or http://maps.bing.com/ but you cannot find that by following the menu options. You have to know and enter the URL directly into your browser.

At present, all Microsoft seem to have done is put a slightly different interface on top of Live and given it a different domain name, an impression further reinforced by the help files still being on live.com. I will continue to use Live.com as one of my favourite alternative search engines: it does sometimes come up with unique content and I like the image search. Bing has nothing that is significantly new or innovative. As Phil Bradley says, what a wasted opportunity. Google can rest easy.

Academic Live and Live Books axed

I did a double take when I scanned through my RSS feeds this morning. Live Search have announced that they are closing down Academic Live and Live Books Search. Surely a late report of an April Fool, I thought. Unfortunately it was a genuine posting on Live Search’s official blog. Both sites will be taken down this week and they are winding down their digitization initiatives, including their library scanning and their in-copyright book programs.

I have tried to support Live.com and promote it to those who attend my workshops as a viable alternative to Google. In my experience, it seems to have the most up to date database, often finds pages and documents that the other search engines miss, and has a great command for locating RSS feeds on a web site. But it keeps shooting itself in the foot. The site recently had a makeover, but the presentation of the advanced search is still awful and the only reliable way of using the options is via the command line. Live News has improved greatly and now has an RSS alert option, but only in the US version of Live. See my earlier posting Live.com updates news interface – but only for the US. And it had by far the best link and linkdomain commands but disabled those because of mass automated data mining.

Both Live Books and Academic Live were superior to Google’s offerings. They had different coverage but the advanced search options, for example date and author search, actually worked in Live, and Academic Live had options for exporting records to RefWorks and EndNote, albeit one by one. Live goes on to say in its announcement that books and scholarly publications “will continue to be integrated into our Search results, but not through separate indexes.” Sorry, but not good enough. That will work fine if you know exactly what you are looking for and it is a very narrowly focussed search, for example I can easily find my husband’s papers on ESR studies of zeolites, but it is impossible to limit a search to books or peer reviewed papers on a more general topic.

It seems that this part of the market does not make enough money for Live and it says that it will now “focus on verticals with high commercial intent, such as travel, and offer users cash back on their purchases from our advertisers.” Bribery appears to be part of the new company policy: another headline in my morning feed update reads “Office 2007 plus petrol: Microsoft Australia is trying to lure Aussies to buy Office 2007 with petrol”!

Forget about self-inflicted metatarsal wounds, I am beginning to suspect that Live has a serious death wish. I wonder what will be the next part of Live to go?

New look for Live.com: two steps forward, three steps back

Microsoft have launched their new look for Live.com. It has the now obligatory minimalist look, which was already evident in the previous interface, but has at long last added a link to the Advanced Search option on the home page. Also new to this version is the option to receive an RSS alert for news searches. “Hurrah!” I shouted, “At long last they are listening to users and in danger of threatening Google’s crown”.

Unfortunately, my joy was short lived.

1. The advanced search screen is still pathetic compared to Google’s, Yahoo’s and Exalead’s, and there is no filetype search option. You have to use the ‘filetype:’ command in the default search box

2. A major issue I have had with Live is that it offers different search options and results displays depending on which ‘country version’ you are using (see the slide below from one of my recent presentations comparing the UK and US versions and number 3 on the News search).

Live.com: UK vs US versions – March 2008

In the previous version of Live.com you could force it to switch from, for example, the UK to the US version by going into the Language option and choosing English (US) instead of English (UK). Now, there is no differentiation between US and UK. I thought I might be able to solve this problem by going into Options and changing the location at which Live thinks I am based. It assumes London but even when I tell it that I am in New York, United States it still insists that I am in the UK! A minor issue you might think but if your ISP gives Live an IP address in Frankfurt, Australia or wherever and Live is telling you that it is going to give you customised results according to your location – well, what is the point? Google and Yahoo give you the option to switch between different country versions whenever you want.

3. At long last they have implemented RSS feeds for news search alerts, but then I realised that I was looking at the boring old news results for the UK and not the super-duper display that the US now sees (see my earlier posting on this issue). And there is no way that I can find, other than going through an anonymous proxy server based in the US, to gain access to the US version.

The verdict? I have to partially agree with Phil Bradley’s comment “If I get a delegate on a course asking me why Live Search should be their preferred search engine I simply couldn’t give them a good reason.” They have so much going for them and then they totally mess it up. Their database is the most up to date for many of the sites that I search on; the coverage seems to be better; they have a worthy competitor to Google Scholar in Academic Live; Maps, Books and Live Earth are pretty good too. So why do they keep shooting themselves in the foot with c**p interfaces?

Live.com updates news interface – but only for the US

Following Live.com’s announcement about its revamped news results, I waited with bated breath to see the new improved service in operation. Alas, nothing happened and after several days of monitoring and hearing from other bloggers how wonderful it is I was still getting the same boring old results. Then I twigged that it was probably because Live.com automatically kicks me into the UK version of its services rather than the US one. Those of us in the UK see a straight forward linear listing of text articles.

Live News – UK version

Live News UK version

It was only when I changed my Language settings from English (United Kingdom) to English (United States) that I saw what all the fuss was about. The results page, as many have commented, is more ‘Google-like’. The appearance is similar, stories are clustered together and photos included in the listings. One up on Google, though, is the inclusion of news videos. Roll your cursor over the thumbnails and you see a preview.

Live News – US Version

Live News US Version

Google News

Google News

Overall, I prefer Live’s presentation of the results to Google’s but Live still does not offer RSS feeds for alerts but claims that this will be appearing soon. Also planned is the incorporation of blogs into the search process.

As an aside, Google News has started pulling out quotes from the articles and displaying at them at the top of the page. Thanks to Phil Bradley for the alert.