Media, Technology, and Education
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The Decision Engine

I’ve seen a couple of commercials on TV for Microsoft’s newest product, Bing.  Microsoft claims that Bing is a “decision engine.”   What exactly is a “decision engine”?  According to a press release from Microsoft, a decision engine “goes beyond search to help customers deal with information overload.”  In other words, information is no longer power.  Products like Google (Microsoft’s competitor) present too much information in response to searches and humans now need help (more help than Google can give) to be able to make sense of it all.  And Microsoft steps in with Bing.

The traditional search engine does a good job of helping people find information, according to Microsoft’s press release, but the explosion of information means that people have difficulty actually using that information to make informed decisions.  So Bing will actually help us make decisions!  That seems like a bold claim to me especially since search engine optimization is typically incremental rather than revolutionary.  Is Bing as revolutionary as the phrase “decision engine” implies?  It’s difficult to say at this point but even Microsoft’s own promotional materials make me doubt it.

According to the press release, Microsoft did some research about the kinds of things that people search for and found that lots of people are interested in four areas when they search the web: “making a purchase decision, planning a trip, researching a health condition or finding a local business.”  Ok, so there’s the first way that Bing is not really a “decision engine.”  The tool will be optimized to deal with searches that are related to these four areas and the press release makes no mention of whether the tool will help me make other kinds of decisions.

The optimization strategy for dealing with these four areas also doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary to me.  The press release gives a bit of detail about the focus of the strategy.  In particular, Bing provides “great search results”, an “organized search experience”, and it simplifies tasks and provides insights.  What do these things mean?

“Great search results” simply means that Microsoft’s research found that only 25% of searches provide information that satisfies the searcher.  So in creating Bing, they tried to increase this percentage.  No details about how they’ve done this, however.  But don’t all search engine manufacturers try to provide results that are as relevant as possible?  So this is not a revolutionary strategy. 

Microsoft also did some research and found that people want the results of their searching to be organized.  So they added some organizational features to Bing.  These features include “Explore Pane, a dynamically relevant set of navigation and search tools on the left side of the page; Web Groups, which groups results in intuitive ways both on the Explore Pane and in the actual results; and Related Searches and Quick Tabs, which is essentially a table of contents for different categories of search results.”  When Microsoft uses the words “relevant” and “intuitive”, I am skeptical.  Remember “Clippy”, the paper clip cartoon character that was supposed to help us when we used Office?  Or how about the fact that Microsoft claims that they changed the menu structure in the Office suite for Vista so that the menus would be more “intuitive”?  There are too many examples that show that what Microsoft considers “relevant” and “intuitive” doesn’t match what most people consider “relevant” and “intuitive”.  So this statement from the press release doesn’t convince me that the claims that Bing is a “decision engine” is anything more than hype.

Finally, Microsoft claims that they use the strategy of simplifying tasks and providing insight.  Again, most search engine manufacturers probably want to do this so the strategy itself is probably not revolutionary.  But the fact that Bing focuses only on four primary areas of searching might mean that the tool can be optimized to simplify tasks and provide insights into these four types of searches. 

I haven’t yet used Bing.  The only way to know whether it really is a “decision engine” that will revolutionize the way we use the information provided on the Web is to use the tool.  Microsoft has had a search engine tool for a long time (quick–do you know what it’s called?).  It was called Live Search before it was upgraded and renamed to Bing.  But the fact that you probably didn’t know that name is an indication that the old tool was probably not very good, certainly not better than Google.  Given Microsoft’s record with upgrades, I feel pretty sure that calling Bing a “decision engine” is nothing more than hype.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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