Page last updated at 07:39 GMT, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 08:39 UK

Microsoft Bing adds visual search

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, San Francisco

Bing.com
Microsoft said "images play a large part in the decision making process"

Software giant Microsoft has introduced "visual search" to its Bing search engine to try to further set itself apart from market leader Google.

The new feature will allow users to browse results using pictures instead of text.

Visual search will initially concentrate on four main areas: travel, health, leisure and shopping.

"The whole concept is that the world of search is going to change," said Microsoft's Yusuf Mehdi.

"There will be a more graphic way people will search, and it will pivot how people search," said Mr Mehdi, the firm's senior vice-president of online services.

'Search battle'

Microsoft unveiled the beta, or test version of the feature, at TechCrunch 50, a conference being held in San Francisco for start-ups to pitch their ideas to investors.

Laptops and Google logo
Google accounted for nearly 65% of all US searches last month

"Competition breeds innovation and this nice little battle between Google and Microsoft is having a huge benefit to consumers," said investor Ron Conway, who has previously put money into Google, PayPal and AskJeeves.

Microsoft launched Bing in May and promoted it as an improvement over Google's "10 blue links" for tasks like shopping and travel.

New figures by net analysts Nielsen showed that Microsoft's share of US searches rose to 10.7% in August while Google remained dominant with 64.6%. Yahoo, in second place, was used for 16% of searches.

In late July, Microsoft and Yahoo signed an agreement to work together to better take on Google. It still has to pass anti-trust scrutiny.

At the launch, Microsoft claimed Visual Search allowed users to conduct certain searches faster than the "traditional image search" offered by rival Google and other search engines.

In a blog post, the company said a study it conducted found that consumers could process results with images 20% faster than text-only results.

"It's like searching through a large online catalogue," Microsoft said.

As users enter search terms, a link at the top of the first page of results allows users to "visualise" what Bing has found.

Clicking on the link displays a gallery of related images.

'Money maker'

At the moment only a small number of topics will return a visual display. These centre on popular categories like entertainment, famous people, shopping and sports.

"I think in those isolated cases it's going to work very well and those are the areas where there is a lot of money," Don Dodge, Microsoft's director of business development told BBC News.

"There is a lot of advertising money for shopping, for travel and so on. So not only is it a better user experience but it's a better business model too," said Mr Dodge.

Even though the TechCrunch conference targets start-up companies which come to have their ideas evaluated by a panel of experts, Microsoft agreed to have the group rate its new product.

"This is a good paradigm but should be implemented in areas where the user needs images to get into what he's looking for," said Yossi Vardi, an angel investor known for investing in software, energy and mobile companies.

The panel was also jokingly asked if they would be interested in investing in the product and the company behind it.

"Bing has a real flair and, depending what you think of Microsoft, it is a great surprise," said Jason Hirschhorn, chief product officer for MySpace.com.

"The brand and interface its fun and tactile. Yusuf, you have my cheque," he joked.



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