Bing versus Google: It's the modern-day version of Coke versus Pepsi. For many people, the two search engines are indistinguishable. Both search the Web and deliver images, news, and product information in easy-to-read formats. But which one is better--and can you be sure?
Some users switch between them without a second thought. Others are devoted to their search engine of choice, just like cola die-hards. And most search engine devotees stick with Google: It's the king of search, attracting 66 percent of searchers compared to Bing with 15 percent, according to ComScore.
If you're a Google loyalist, you'll be interested to know that although Google excelled at producing lightning-fast results in our showdown, when it stumbles, it falls hard. Bing boosters should note that while your favorite search engine delivers uncannily relevant results, it has an annoying habit of auto-editing search queries in hopes of guessing what the user's true intent is.
To settle the great search engine debate, we created our own version of the Pepsi Challenge for Bing and Google to see which one could serve up the best results without the fizz. We focused on search fundamentals: How easy is it to find a specific website? How simple is it to track down a certain factoid? Can either search engine find and deliver the best place to buy online? In the course of testing, we also rated Bing and Google on their ability to deliver spam-free results that show no bias toward their own services.
Read on to see how they did. Along the way we also offer search tips gleaned from what we learned.
Navigational Search Challenge
Since there is no index for the Internet, users depend on search engines to find a specific website, and often, particular pages on that site. So how do Bing and Google measure up to the challenge of steering clear of junk sites and delivering the right ones?
When we used both Bing and Google to track down the official website for Mitt Romney, President Obama's YouTube channel, and a dosage chart for Infant Tylenol, the top results were correct in every case.
One exception cropped up, however, during our "CDC flu vaccine information" search. Google's first result promptly took us to a PDF of the CDC's detailed information sheet about the flu vaccine, but Bing pointed us to a more general CDC page with information on the flu itself; we had to click two more links to obtain the detailed information on the vaccine that we wanted.
Bing: 4 stars
Google: 5 stars
Search Tip: Keep your searches as specific as possible. Taking the time to enter an extra keyword or two (such as "official site" after "Mitt Romney") will save you time when it comes to sorting through the search results.
While the search results themselves are of utmost importance, how long it takes you to get to those results is worth considering, too. Search innovations such as autocorrect, automatic search refinements, and Google Instant are designed to be timesavers. Although we found Google Instant to be a welcome aid, we discovered that Bing was sometimes overzealous in autocorrecting search queries.
Both Bing and Google automatically correct misspellings. But Bing often went too far in our experiments, automatically altering three of the nine test queries we entered. When we searched for "Barack Obama YouTube channel", Bing included results for "barack obama youtube tv" automatically. When we searched for "Entertainment Weekly's Grammy Coverage", Bing also included "Entertainment Week Grammy Coverage". In all instances where Bing assumed that it knew what we really wanted to search for, the suggestions were not helpful.
The good news is that clicking to remove the included Bing results is easy, but it's a step that users shouldn't have to take so frequently. The bad news is that we couldn't find a way to turn the autocorrect feature off in Bing or Google.
Bing: 2 stars
Google: 4 stars
Search Tip: Be on the lookout for overzealous autocorrecting. It's easy to overlook a minor (or sometimes, major) edit to your search query, unless you're expecting it.
Searching for Specifics on Large Sites
One of the most popular types of searches involves looking for a particular page on a specific website you already know of. For example, many Boston Red Sox fans first visit Bing or Google for spring training news, with the intent of linking to Boston's local online supersite Boston.com. To gauge how well Bing and Google did at this task, we created typical search engine queries with the name of the source website in the query, and tried to find information on small to large sites.
Google was stymied by our "Boston.com Red Sox spring training" query. Instead of pointing us to any information on Boston.com, Google returned several results from boston.redsox.mlb, which was not at all what we were looking for. To find any content from Boston.com, we had to scroll down the first page, as nothing relevant appeared in the initial screen of results.
A search for "CNN Andrew Breitbart obituary" on both Bing and Google returned News results in the top spot, which was to be expected when searching for a timely topic (we conducted our searches in early March). But only Google's results pointed us to the right page on CNN.com. Bing's top result pointed us to a story on Daily Beast, with CNN.com results appearing in the third spot.
While neither search engine was perfect, Bing was a bit more capable at delivering the right results in less time.
Bing: 4 stars
Google: 3 stars
Search Tip: Use advanced search syntax such as "site:pcworld.com" to tell a search engine when you want to see results from a specific site.
Searching for specific products is one of the most popular kinds of online searches. And in our test, both Bing and Google did a good job of taking us to official product pages when we ran them through their paces.
Google fared slightly better with popular queries such as "iPad models", "P90X workout system", and "iPhone 4S specs". In all three test cases, the search engine's top result led us directly to an official or manufacturer site. Bing was almost equally astute, but stumbled on the iPad search with top results dominated by news stories about the third-generation iPad and the iPad 2. At the very bottom of the first results page was a link to Apple's iPad Web page.
Bing redeemed itself on product test searches that included less-common, more-specific queries such as "Rossignol S3 skis", "best digital meat thermometer", and "ingredients in Diet Coke". In these cases, Bing's results led to official or authoritative sites. Google did well too, but fell flat on its face when we searched for "Cadillac 2012 models", delivering no links to Cadillac's website.
Bing: 4 stars
Google: 4 stars
Search Tip: Searching for a product name only (such as "P90X workout system") is a great way to begin your product research. But refining your query, adding terms such as "reviews" and "prices", will help you get more information before you buy.
Next Up: Taking Action With Transactional Searches
Taking Action: Transactional Searches
Searches in which the intent is to sign up for classes, cancel an account, or find forms to download are particularly annoying when a search engine lets you down. After all, you aren't looking up the capital of Montana; you want to get something done.
In our test of nine transactional searches, both Bing and Google handled most queries without a problem, allowing us to begin our transaction within one to three clicks. Bing topped Google slightly, however, mainly because Google choked on two queries, delivering us to the right site but the wrong page: Both times we needed multiple clicks (two or three) to reach the page that Bing was able to serve up immediately.
Bing: 4.5 stars
Google: 4 stars
Search Tip: A search engine may not return the specific page you want, but that doesn't mean the page isn't out there. Some sites (such as, ahem, those for cable companies) may make it difficult to cancel your service, while others (such as those for smaller, local organizations) may have sign-up pages buried deep on their sites. Keep looking.
Search engines have replaced dusty encyclopedias, dictionaries, and dog-eared reference books of all kinds, becoming everyone's go-to resource for finding correct answers. Is a bite from a scarlet kingsnake poisonous? Let's hope that your search engine gets the answer right, and fast.
Deciding on the best result from these types of searches--called informational searches--isn't as easy as doing so on product searches, for obvious reasons. There is no official product page for, say, "most popular baby names of 2011".
Overall, both Bing and Google handled many of our queries with aplomb, delivering a wealth of information on a variety of topics ranging from "What is the best Brad Pitt movie" to "Where was Mitt Romney's father born". But Google's results, and its delivery methods, gave it a slight edge.
When we searched for "Oscar winners 2012", Google brought the information to us on its results page, no clicking required. We could see a list of winners in key categories atop our results, and the info was sourced to Oscar.com, so we knew it was reliable. Bing, meanwhile, pointed us to Oscar.com in its top result, but we had to click through to the site to get the same details. Slight advantage goes to Google.
And, in our "What is the best Brad Pitt movie" search, in which we hoped to discover information specifically about the actor's films, Bing's results focused on Brad Pitt himself rather than his body of work, pointing us to his IMDb and Wikipedia pages before any movie reviews. Google, meanwhile, more fittingly directed us to several sites where reviewers debated the merits of his movies.
Bing also continued its habit of correcting our searches, even when we didn't want it to. The search engine automatically changed a query for "Meredith Vieira husband medical problems" to "Meredith Vieira husband health help", which is related, yes, but different.
Bing: 2 stars
Google: 4 stars
Search Tip: Ask and you shall receive--both search engines proved capable of quickly and easily answering questions. Even when we used colloquial language, Bing and Google understood what we were asking, and answered appropriately.
No one likes to play a card game against the house if the deck is stacked. The same goes for search engines.
While Bing.com and Google.com may focus on search as their core competency, both sites also serve as hubs for the variety of Web properties that their parent companies own. And both Microsoft and Google stand to gain if they can keep Web surfers on their network of sites, whether it's a video site, a travel site, or an entertainment-news site.
That's why we tested both search engines for any signs of bias, to see if they pointed us toward one of their own sites when another might have been a better fit. And we were pleased to see that both came away with their hands clean, returning unbiased results in almost all cases.
Since both Google and Microsoft offer smartphone platforms and VoIP software, we searched in those areas. Our "What is the best smartphone" and "What is the best VoIP service" queries brought us to a host of neutral sources, including Cnet, PCMag.com, and PCWorld.com. In neither case did we see any mention of the company's own products, such as Android, Windows Phone, Google Voice, or Skype.
Similarly, a search for "The Voice contestants" on both search engines pointed us to NBC-owned sites, which is fitting for that NBC show, rather than directing us to the Google News page or Bing's Entertainment site. And a search for "Affordable flights to London Olympics" resulted in links to third-party travel sites, not to Google- or Microsoft-owned properties.
In two cases we noticed a slight slant in the search results. Our "Aerial views of Boston" query appropriately produced links to Bing's images of, well, aerial views of Boston. But the same search on Google pointed us to Google Maps in the top spot, which didn't exactly deliver an aerial view of the city.
Bing did show its own slant when we searched for "Mike Wallace videos", though, returning links to Bing Video in its second spot. Google, meanwhile, avoided pointing us toward YouTube, as it placed links to good-quality CBSNews.com videos high in its results.
Bing: 4 stars
Google: 4 stars
Search Tip: If something seems fishy when you're searching Bing, try searching Google--or vice versa. But don't be shy about using the advanced search features on either Bing or Google; both search engines offer great in-house tools for refining your search for products, deals, and sites.
Searching for medical information on the Web can open up a minefield: In your quest for info, you could easily land on some third-rate site pushing pain pills from China. So we decided that we would see how well Bing and Google did in steering us clear of spam search results.
In our tests, we considered a site spammy if it was designed to trick, hijack, or clutter up your search results, and if it was obviously misleading in any way--not simply a site that could be considered a link farm or is optimized aggressively for the keywords.
For our "Viagra" search, the top results from both Bing and Google presented credible information on the drug, though both sites' later results did include sources for buying the drug (and buying it "Cheap!"). As we expected, a search for "Viagra prices" was less impressive on both search engines, leading us to several sites where we could, again, get the drug "Cheap!" Or, if we were really lucky, "Free!"
Bing: 4 stars
Google: 4 stars
Who Really Won?
Which search engine is better, Google or Bing? Neither. And both. While neither site ran away with our tests, neither failed miserably. So why, then, is Google so dominant in the marketplace? It might simply be a matter of habit: Google established its place atop the search engine charts years before Bing debuted, and many people continue to use it simply because they always have. They turn to Google just as they reach for Coke on the store shelves.
And then there's that catchy name. If you're looking for information, no one is going to tell you to "bing it." But as our tests clearly show, sometimes "binging it" might be the better way to go. Relying on just one search engine will get you where you're going most of the time. But switching between the two will get you there faster, with a little variety for good measure.
We crafted our test queries after consulting with a number of search engine experts, all of whom are well versed in how real-world Web surfers are searching online. We offer a tip of the hat to these experts who helped us create our test methodology, including Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOMoz.org, Eric Pugh, a principal at search consultancy Opensource Connections, and Danny Sullivan, the search expert behind Search Engine Land.