Google's new search features put pressure on Bing

Microsoft needs to answer image and voice search -- and soon, analysts say

With Google releasing new image and voice search tools this week, Microsoft needs to up Bing's game or risk falling behind the evolving search race.

That's how industry analysts see Google's announcements this week that appear to give the dominant search engine several features that rival Bing can't yet deliver. And that isn't going to help Bing, or its search partner Yahoo, make up any of the distant ground between them and Google.

Hadley Reynolds, an analyst with IDC, said Bing should be working furiously to carve out new features of its own because Google just changed the game on it.

"While Bing and Yahoo have been rightly focused on the 'decision engine' capabilities of search and delivering people more meat and fewer links, Google is changing the character of the search experience with Instant Page, image search, and their other new features," he said. "With the size of Google's audience, they get to condition what the market expects from the search experience, and that makes it hard for Bing and Yahoo not to counter with similar capabilities, even as they continue to try to differentiate themselves."

Google laid out its new search features at its Inside Search event on Tuesday, unveiling voice and image search, along with Instant Pages, which is designed to load the top search result on the user's computer before he or she even clicks on the link.

Reynolds pointed out that speed and imagery is addictive to search users-- and that's exactly what Google offered up this week. "Google is taking a big step toward expanding the repertoire of search by bringing voice and photos and images into the same interaction paradigm as text," he said.

However, some analysts, like Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group and Dan Olds, of The Gabriel Consulting Group, noted that Google has to make sure the new features work well, or users will simply get annoyed. And annoyed users will leave Google for Bing or Yahoo.

"Voice search could prove iffy and could end up being like the first attempts at handwriting recognition," said Enderle. "There could be too many variables - ambient noise, microphone quality and speaker's accent -- all make this difficult to do well for large numbers of people."

Olds, though, took a different tack, jokingly noting that Instant Pages could be as annoying as that person who answers your question before you've finished your sentence.

"But in Google's case, the answer is usually right, so I don't have the overwhelming urge to smack it," he added.

However, he wants to know more about what happens to the images people use in Image Search. "Users should think about it before they run their pictures through the tool," he added. "When they do that, they're essentially uploading the photo to the Web. What happens to it after that? I'm just not sure."

Olds also noted that Google is really pushing itself to evolve.

"What this really shows us is that Google is still looking to push the boundaries of search," he said. "These new features, although not really revolutionary, give some level of added value to users and that's always a good thing for Google. These additions give Google some features that Microsoft can't match right now, which is always to Google's advantage."

Right now, Microsoft needs to come out with similar features if it doesn't want to lag behind, noted Olds. "It's an arms race between the two companies and Google just upped the ante a bit higher."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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