Microsoft fires shot at Google -- Bing's Visual Search

Search wars continues heating up as Microsoft releases beta of image search tool

Less than four months after Microsoft Corp. unveiled Bing, its revamped search engine, the company today released a beta version of Visual Search, which is also aimed directly at rival Google Inc.

Microsoft announced at the TechCrunch50 conference in San Francisco that Visual Search is designed to let users search through galleries of images.

"How many times have you seen a movie trailer and forgotten the name of it the next day? You go online to search for it, but you can't seem to find the movie with 'what's-his-name' in it anywhere, but you can picture the actor in your head?" asked Todd Schwartz, a group product manager at Microsoft, in a blog post. "Now to find that movie you were looking for, click on 'Movies' and scroll through the imagery to find 'what's-his-name.' Now that you found it, hover your mouse over the movie to view details including title, rating, reviews, and how much it grossed at the box office, all right under the search box."

With Visual Search, Microsoft may have added a feature to Bing that gives it a leg up on Google in the companies' ongoing search war.

"This is a big advance," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. "If the technology works as well as we're hearing so far, [Visual Search] should give Microsoft some formidable ammunition to use against Google in the search wars.

"Humans process visuals faster than text, and when we're looking for something specific, it's much, much faster to pick what we want out of a group of pictures versus lines of text describing the pictures," Olds continued. "If Microsoft delivers true visual search capabilities, this is something that might close the gap between them and Google in both search and advertising revenue."

But the beta release is limited to a specific set of topics -- such as movies, celebrities, music, politicians and sports -- and is by no means comprehensive, Olds added.

"Bing may have pulled ahead in the short term with Visual Search, but it's not a home run," he said. "Early reports say that the Visual Search is limited to a specific set of topics. This isn't dynamic visual searching, but it is a great feature and a potential game-changer if Microsoft can quickly expand their capabilities. If they can do that, then they have a good shot at pulling users away from Google for at least some searches."

Microsoft and Google have been going head-to-head in the search arena for months now.

In June, Microsoft released Bing, the long-awaited upgrade to its Live Search tool. And in late July, Microsoft and Yahoo Inc. signed an agreement to work together to better take on Google. The proposed alliance -- which still must pass antitrust muster -- could give the two companies some much-needed leverage in their ongoing efforts to chip away at Google's stranglehold on the search market. The plan calls for Bing to power Yahoo's sites while Yahoo sells premium search advertising services for both companies.

Analysts say that even if regulators allow the partnership to go forward, Microsoft and Yahoo still face a difficult task in taking on Google. But coming out with a search feature that's now unavailable on Google's sites is a move that could at least begin to drag users away from the search market leader.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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