Microsoft's Bing goes visual

Software giant Microsoft has introduced visual search to further set itself apart from market leader Google.

The new feature for its 90-day-old search engine will let users browse results using pictures instead of text.

Visual search will concentrate on four main areas: travel, health, leisure and shopping.

"The whole concept is that the world of search is going to change," said Microsoft's Yusuf Mehdi.

"There will be a more graphic way people will search, and it will pivot how people search," said Mr Mehdi, the firm's senior vice president of online services.

Microsoft also claimed "Visual Search" allows users to conduct certain searches faster than the "traditional image search offered by rival Google and other search engines.

In a blog post, the company said a study it conducted found that consumers can process results with images 20% faster than text only results.

"It's like searching through a large online catalogue," Microsoft said.

"Innovation 101"

Microsoft unveiled the beta, or test version of the feature, at TechCrunch 50, a conference being held in San Francisco for start ups to pitch their ideas to investors.

Mr Mehdi told the audience of entrepreneurs, investors, analysts and journalists that was three and a half years in the making.

Laptops and Google logo
Google accounted for nearly 65% of all U.S. searches last month

He described its incarnation as "innovation 101 when you are the single digit player that comes from behind."

As users enter search terms, a link at the top of the first page of results lets you choose to 'visualise' what Bing has found.

Click on the link and a display or gallery of related images will pop up.

A search at for "digital cameras," for example, returns a gallery of thumbnail pictures of digital cameras which can then be filtered by manufacturer or by price, displaying a new set of images.

Hovering over a particular image or clicking on it will provide information about that particular product and the images rearrange themselves on the page as a search query is refined

"A thousand words"

At the moment only a small number of topics will return a visual display. These centre around popular categories like entertainment, famous people, shopping and sports.

"Where visual search really helps is in areas like travel or e-commerce, shopping or even the movies," Don Dodge, Microsoft's director of business development told the BBC.
Microsoft said it will be expanding visual search over the coming months

"Your brain works faster on a picture than it does on text so a picture really is worth a thousand words."

And from a business perspective, Mr Dodge said that concentrating on these four core areas is key.

"I think in those isolated cases it's going to work very well and those are the areas where there is a lot of money.

"There is a lot of advertising money for shopping, for travel and so on. So not only is it a better user experience but it's a better business model too," said Mr Dodge.

"Benefit to consumers"

Even though the TechCrunch conference targets start up companies which come to have their ideas evaluated by a panel of experts, Microsoft agreed to have the group rate its new visual search product.

Bing screenshot (Microsoft) will be adding more new features before the holidays

"The huge winner here is the consumer because competition breeds innovation and this nice little battle between Google and Microsoft is having a huge benefit to consumers," said angel investor Ron Conway who has in the past put money into Google, PayPal and AskJeeves.

"This is a good paradigm but should be implemented in areas where the user needs images to get into what he's looking for," added Yossi Vardi another angel investor known for investing in software, energy and mobile companies.

The panel was also jokingly asked if they would be interested in investing in the product and the company behind it.

"Bing has a real flair and depending what you think of Microsoft, it is a great surprise. The brand and interface its fun and tactile. Yusuf you have my cheque," quipped Jason Hirschhorn, the chief product officer for

Microsoft launched Bing in May and promoted it as an improvement over Google-style "10 blue links" for tasks like shopping and travel.

New figures by Nielsen said that Microsoft's share of U.S. searches rose to 10.7% in August while Google remained dominant with 64.6%. Yahoo, in second place, was used for 16% of searches.

In late July, Microsoft and Yahoo Inc. signed an agreement to work together to better take on Google. It still has to pass anti-trust scrutiny.