-- Talk about an iron grip on search. To research this column comparing Google's venerable search engine with Microsoft's upstart Bing, I Googled "Bing versus Google." It didn't even occur to me to Bing the search.
In a nutshell, that's Microsoft's problem. The company recently unveiled a fresh and attractive search alternative to Google. It's just darn difficult to change habits, including my own.
Google's is the search box affixed near the top of the Web browsers I use. And way more often than not, Google delivers the thorough search results I'm seeking and does so with expediency: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
But give Microsoft props. Bing, launched about a month ago, is really impressive, in another league compared with the Live Search engine it replaces.
Bing bests Google on aesthetics. The Google home page is clean and sparse with the familiar Google Search button and links at the top for images, video, maps, news, shopping, Gmail and more.
Bing's home page adds pizazz, with a stunning travel-oriented photo posted daily. An image of manta rays in Mexico graced Bing.com one day this week. Mouse over the image for factoids — "These curious creatures are gentle, sociable and playful." Such brief digressions are fun. From the home page, you can click on images, videos, shopping, news, maps and travel.
Of course, there's more to search than sending you on a wild, um, manta chase. You want fast, comprehensive and relevant results, a Google strength. Microsoft more than holds it own, especially in the areas Bing is initially concentrating on — travel, health, finding local businesses and shopping. There's even a cash-back program on certain items you buy through Bing.
Type "New York Mets," and the team's most recent scores and upcoming schedule are shown at the top of the results. Google displays the score of the last game and lets you know when the next game will be played.
Type a company name in Bing, and its customer-service phone number appears near the top. Bravo. Such numbers are hard to uncover through Google.
Throughout the Bing experience, you can access snippets of information that may satisfy what you're looking for without leading you elsewhere. If you move the cursor to the right of a Bing search result, a summary window opens with excerpts lifted from the underlying site. You can quickly determine whether to navigate to the full site.
When you hover over a video thumbnail with the cursor, it starts playing, though I hit an occasional snag. You don't have to click "play" or go to the video source (YouTube, Hulu, etc.). Clicking a thumbnail lets you watch in a larger window, often without leaving Bing. Hover over an image, and it jumps out in a somewhat larger window.
Another plus: the "quick tabs" that appear down the left side of the results pane to help you refine a search. Enter "Charleston, S.C.," and you can categorize results by hotels, restaurants, real estate, weather, etc.
On Google, you must scroll to the bottom of a page to see "related searches," though you can also summon a side panel, by tapping "show options."
Bing is also dabbling in real-time search. For example, if you search for an influential person and add Twitter to the search, such as "Al Gore Twitter," you'll get a list of their recent tweets.
Here's how Google and Bing handled a few sample queries.
•Cataracts. Listed at the top of a Bing query on this eye condition was a description of cataracts culled from a Mayo Clinic article. Google's top result was a sponsored advertisement from a lens manufacturer called Transitions. Overall, both Google and Bing delivered several excellent listings, many from the same sources. Google reported about 3.3 million results compared with about 2.3 million for Bing.
•Hilton, Paris. An intentionally vague query. Google started with a sponsored listing for Hilton.com, followed by a news result for the socialite. Bing also had a hotel link at the top (for hotelreservations.com). The Hotels by Hilton site came next, followed by the "official" website for Paris Hilton.
Bing is big on travel. Clicking "Travel" brings up a site that resembles Expedia. You can search for flights, hotels, cars, etc. Bing will predict whether airfares will rise or fall for certain cities, helping you determine to buy now or wait.
•Michael Jackson. Google and Bing posted news stories first. Google put links to the Wikipedia entry for Jackson and the official michaeljackson.com site, above images and videos. Related searches (songs, jokes, kids not his) were at the bottom. Bing listed similar sites but put videos and images higher up. The pane to the left of the Jackson search on Bing let me narrow the search by news, songs, biography, downloads, merchandise and more. Bing claimed 101 million results compared with 85 million for Google. I didn't count.
•Ford Fusion. Bing delivered helpful stats near the top — price range, fuel economy and user ratings. The side panel categorized searches by dealers, reviews, forum, manual, recalls and images. You have to poke around a bit to uncover that information on Google.
You rarely go wrong Googling something. But for a search that sings, you may want to Bing it.
The bottom line:
***1/2 (Out of four)
Pro:Fast, comprehensive — you rarely go wrong with a Google search.
Con:Some powerful search tools are buried.
***1/2 (Out of four)
Pro:Attractive. Gives you a lot of information without the need for you to navigate elsewhere. Plays videos inside Bing. Excellent on travel resources. Good on presenting related searches. Has cash-back discount shopping program when you buy through a link.
Con:Not as comprehensive as Google on some searches. Not as strong as Google on news. Occasional video glitches.