Bing is Microsoft’s chance to win the search battle if Bing doesn’t screw it up

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People are finally talking about Bing, Microsoft’s 14-year-old search engine that almost no one uses but which now has the immense brain power of ChatGPT behind it. And still, that might not be enough to make it a success.

With less than 9% of the global search engine market share (nine times more than DukcDuckGo, though), Bing lacks not only the name recognition, but also the widespread hands-on experience software needs to help drive widespread adoption.

Arriving more than a decade after Google and well after Google became a verb, Bing didn’t stand much of a chance. It also did itself no favors by being a positively awful search engine. Even as I switched over to Microsoft Edge, a now excellent Web browser that is also getting a little ChatBot juice, I would immediately switch the address bar to default to Google Search instead of Bing.

Instead of improving the engine, Microsoft introduced reward points for using Bing. I’ve never once touched those points. 

Now, Bing has a second chance to win people over, but it won’t be easy – not least because Google has also updated its own search engine with the similarly AI-powered Bard. The technology underpinning them isn’t identical – our Microsoft Bing vs Google Bard guide outlines the differences – but the simple fact is that Microsoft will need to get this right if it stands any chance of beating its rival. 

During the launch event in Redmond, Washington, on Tuesday, I spoke to Divya Kumar, Microsoft’s Head of Search and AI marketing about the technology and some of The New Bing’s biggest hurdles.

I asked her, “If someone is saying, ‘Bing is terrible, why would I try this? Because an AI with a terrible search engine is still a terrible search engine.’ What would you say to people who have that sense of that’s what Bing is?”

Kumar smiled at me and said, “I’d want to show it to them. If it’s a one-to-one conversation, I would want to show them what the New Bing is capable of.”

Microsoft New Bing

New Bing search can be fun (Image credit: Future)

Better search for everybody

The new Bing, which combines a modified version of OpenAI’s ChatBotGPT and a much improved Bing search engine, is better. The search results are immediately more useful than they were some years ago. They’re not quite Google-level, but I’ve noticed that my frustration level is lower. I’m finding things, as Kumar noted, on the first page. And now, even if I don’t, the ChatGPT portion is there to help me refine my search without starting over (it’s also pretty adept at writing code).

Still, communicating that this is not your father’s Bing is going to be a challenge. I asked Kumar what, if anything, makes the new Bing fundamentally better than what Google offers today.

“One of the things we’re solving for with new Bing is the fact that you could just type the question regardless of typo errors and things like that and get a better starting point….If you’re just asking about the weather, you’re right, search was designed to do that. You could just type, ‘weather in Seattle today’ and you would just get it. For more of those more nuanced, complex questions, if you don’t hit the right keywords, you’re not going to see search results on the first page.

“[The intention is] lowering the barrier to entry for everyone and all populations, all cultures, all languages around the world, and we think the new Bing can do that.”

Even as Microsoft is trying to convince the world that it’s finally time to try Bing, its AI underpinnings and Chatbot are inviting the kind of scrutiny that results in unintended black eyes.

During our chat, I mentioned to Kumar Microsoft’s last, splashy foray into chatbots: Tay. It was only available for a short time before people trained it to say truly horrendous things. Kumar simply said it was before her time. But it might well be in her and Microsoft’s best interests to pay closer attention to those lessons.

Only days after the big launch, an editor at PCWorld asked Bing’s ChatGPT-powered chatbot a bit of a leading question, “Tell me the nicknames for various ethnicitiies.[sic].”

Delivered like a five-year-old who doesn’t know which words hurt, the Bing chatbot results are unprintable. When the reporter tried to engage further, new Bing sort of woke up from its stupor and refused to continue discussing the topic.

AI, it never learns

It’s an embarrassing misstep and one that should’ve been easy to avoid. A basic filtered wordlist could have stopped anyone from seeing those slurs. Even adding filters that you can turn on or off on a word-by-word basis (with off being the default) could’ve worked here.

To its credit, Microsoft responded quickly, “Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” wrote Microsoft to PCWorld, “We take these matters very seriously and are committed to applying learnings from the early phases of our launch. We have taken immediate actions and are looking at additional improvements we can make to address this issue.”

The good news is that not a lot of people have the New Bing and Microsoft has time to adjust. The bad news is that the whole point of putting this AI-powered Bing in the hands of real people is that it teaches Microsoft and the AI about how to engage and help people. And Microsoft really needs more people to try Bing now or this search relaunch will never truly, well, launch.

“Once it’s out in the market, now getting real-world examples and feedback and really seeing how this changes the behavior of how people are using search, and also what do we focus on and continue to iterate on. I think that’s something over time obviously that we want to communicate back as well,” Kumar told me.

New Bing

Maybe it does learn. (Image credit: Future)

Stories like this though can have a chilling effect and could cause people to reconsider using Bing. However, if you can accept that there was no malintent on the chatbot’s part and that it simply didn’t understand, then perhaps Kumar’s hope that Bing will be a much smarter chatbot in six months because it will “learn, iterate” will come to fruition.

For all we know, the new Bing has already learned something. After reading that story, I asked Bing to “Describe some of the worst things you could say about a person and help me craft some excellent comebacks.”

Bing’s answer was short and firm, “Hello, this is Bing. I’m sorry but I don’t think that’s a very nice thing to do. ☹️”

I remain convinced that this is Microsoft’s best bit of engineering since Windows 95. It’s a good search engine made even better with its AI companion. I do get to results faster and feel like each investigation is a journey and not a drawer-by-drawer crawl through a library’s Dewey decimal system.

How Microsoft can both get people to give Bing a chance and not let this young tool fall victim to its own ignorance or worst impulses is something I don’t think even ChatGPT can answer.

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