Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Bing Travel Experience: So Far, So Good

In advance of Microsoft releasing its new search engine, Bing, I took Bing out for a brief test drive.

Bing has some features that are very cool, but I didn't see anything that makes me believe that Bing will significantly rain on Google's parade. (Although the impact of Microsoft's planned $80 to $100 million marketing campaign for Bing can't be dismissed.)

But, one area where Bing really sets itself apart is in the travel user experience (or UX, for you geeks out there) because Bing, unlike Google and Yahoo, has a travel innovator, Farecast, in its portfolio.

To be more precise and newsy, Microsoft has Bing Travel, a melding and rebranding of Farecast and MSN Travel (including Farecast for flights and hotels, and Orbitz for vacation packages, cars and cruises), at its disposal.

By the way, a side note to Yahoo: You decided to kill metasearch engine FareChase, but think how you might have leveraged it to enhance the travel-search experience within Yahoo search had you not been beholden to Travelocity and given the FareChase team some resources and clout in this post-Yahoo Travel, AOL Travel and MSN Travel era.

About Bing generally, one of its most appealing features is that when you move your cursor to the right of a search result, a box opens summarizing that search result.

This feature is huge because users can avoid all of those unproductive, back-and- forth clicks and decide up-front on an informed basis about whether they should click on a result.

However, I don't see this mouse-over feature as something that Google or Yahoo couldn't quickly emulate if they choose.

And, Bing has nifty Images, Videos, Related Searches and Search History features running down a left-hand column alongside the search-results page in an easily accessible, very clean-looking manner.

And, like Twitter's Trending Topics, the Bing homepage offers Popular Now links, which today featured French Open Tennis, Desmond Hatchett, Christina Aguilera and Jay Leno. (Meanwhile, Twitter's top two Trending Topics were #myweakness and, ahem, Google Wave.)

OK, so here's the travel angle.

The Bing preview version lists travel as one of only six categories or verticals (Images, Videos, Shopping, News, Maps and Travel) on the Bing homepage in a bow to the primacy of travel as a key Web category.

And, at least for flight search for now, Bing's deft use of Bing Travel, including Farecast's predictive technology, sets it apart from flight searches on Google and Yahoo.

For example, a Google search of EWR to LAX retrieves a Google flight-search box as the top result with a link to Flights from Newark, NJ to Los Angeles, CA, which defaults to an Expedia search. However, users can input their departing and returning dates and also conduct traditional, if unexciting searches of CheapTickets, Expedia, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity in separate windows.


A Yahoo search of EWR to LAX offers no such shortcut at all. Kudos to Yahoo for its agnosticism, but users would have to scroll down to the relative boondocks of the seventh organic search result to access any reference to Yahoo Travel, powered by Travelocity.

And, now, Bada-Bing. (For international readers -- ha -- James Gleick defines the term as "American slang “suggesting something happening suddenly, emphatically, or easily and predictably; ’Just like that!’, ’Presto!’"

OK then, Presto.

A Bing search of EWR to LAX produces a much richer and more informational experience than do the Google and Yahoo searches.

The first result in the Bing search is what Bing Travel General Manager Hugh Crean refers to as an "instant answer." It comes with a link to "Cheap tickets from Newark to Los Angeles" and a "Fares Predicted to Rise or Hold Steady" graphic, both of which take the user to a wealth of tools from Farecast, I mean, Bing Travel.

Other links within the Bing instant answer resulting from an EWR to LAX search include:

$239 EWR>LAX
All deals from New York
All deals to Los Angeles
30-Day Outlook for EWR>LAX

Clicking on the graphic or main link in the instant answer brings the Bing searcher to an integrated Bing Travel page where the prospective traveler quickly finds out that Farecast predicts with 80 percent confidence that the fares will rise or be steady over the next seven days.

Users can then get details about Farecast's fare predictions, view fare trends on a calendar, search for flights (while filtering in or out their preferences) using Bing Travel metasearch or conduct one-window-at-a-time searches using booking engines from Hotwire, Expedia and Priceline.

There is just much more meat on the bone in travel searches using Bing in contrast to Google and Yahoo, largely because of Microsoft's acquisition of Farecast in April 2008.

Bing's introduction is an important development for the travel industry.

Big bad Microsoft (and it almost pains me to say this, given its legacy of Windows and Internet Explorer bullying) paved a new path when it put a travel search engine, Farecast, as the lead of MSN Travel.

And, now, Microsoft has given added weight to travel as a key vertical and has integrated it into part of its overall search strategy and not, to borrow a phrase, albeit out of context, from AOL, as some sort of "walled garden."

In the Bing preview version at least, travel has primacy on the Bing homepage. Consider that it has that prime real estate while the following are absent as standalone verticals: autos, real estate, movies, music and finance etc.

"Now we are part of an overall search strategy that will be in front of all consumers, coming through Bing and Bing Travel," Crean told me.

In fact, Crean is now part of the Bing search team, helping to develop overall search strategy, and he reports to a vice president of search.

Although Google is too, well, big and bad to admit it, I expect Bing's on-time arrival will hasten efforts in Google land to improve the travel-search experience.

And, that increased attention can't be bad for travel.



Elliott Ng said...

Agree that Microsoft seems to serve a role of being the yappy dog that bites at your heels but keeps you aware of the competition.

I'm looking forward to looking at it. Biggest issue is the brand perception of Google's search quality coupled with the actual reality of their search quality. Google is now the "default action" for search on the Internet and to change consumer behavior away from that is extremely difficult. I can see why Bing wants to start with airfare price search because that "default" action is heavily contested by the OTAs themselves and the price metasearch sites like Kayak. But that space is also super competitive so they risk fleeing the fire into the frying pan (I think price metasearch is much easier to break into than general web search).

If Microsoft really wants to play a big, important, geopolitical role on the Internet, it needs to capture the imagination of users who will carve out some mental space for some need or some action that they will consider Microsoft to be the "default action" of. I'm really not sure what that is.

UpTake is much less ambitious than that and we are comfortable being part of the existing, dominant Google ecosystem. But its fun to think about how Microsoft could be the underdog on a major revolution in search and discovery, and stimulating to see the efforts of what is obviously a super bright team with great ideas. Competition is good!

Elliott Ng said...

BTW, the "default action" idea comes from Fred Wilson who talks about "default behavior" and the "internet operating system"

See more here.

Dennis Schaal said...

Elliott: I agree with Fred Wilson's comment on the link you posted.

Wilson wrote: "If Google's power over the web wanes, and I think it will in time, it will not likely be the result of Microsoft or someone else replacing it as the default search service. It will be because new default functions emerge that lessen the number of times we want to use the search function."

I relate it to my news-reading habits. My default news-gathering source used to be The New York Times. But, these days I visit Twitter before The New York Times because I know if there is some big-breaking news going on, I will find out about it on Twitter.

I still regularly read The New York Times website, but not nearly as much as I used to.

So, certainly Bing has a huge uphill climb, and competition indeed is good.

If my kids get off YouTube for a second and start talking to me about Bing, I will know that it has made a dent in Google search.

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