Microsoft's Revamped Bing Could Actually Upstage Google Search
A historic investment in OpenAI and two new updates to Bing and Edge could be all Microsoft needs to shake things up.
Microsoft might have just caught Google off guard. Search, Google’s bread and butter, has languished, becoming less useful over time, and it’s left an opening for competitors. You could call Google Search a victim of its own success. It was so good at serving up results and directing traffic to other ad-supported websites in its early days that gaming Google Search and paying for placement in search results through advertising has begun to subsume the actual results people were looking for.
Google regularly tweaks its search algorithms and consistently introduces novel ways to search for things, but it hasn’t been enough to change the general online sentiment that if you want a real answer, you’re going to be adding “Reddit” to the end of whatever you’re searching. Microsoft made it clear this week that it’s hoping to use that to its advantage.
At a press event on Tuesday, Microsoft demoed how it plans to use a more advanced form of OpenAI’s ChatGPT to dramatically reinvent how you interact with Bing, the company’s search engine, and Edge, the company’s browser. And it might just be enough to shake up a playing field Google has long ruled.
Bing and Bard
We now have a pretty good idea why Microsoft entered a new phase of its partnership with startup OpenAI, investing additional billions of dollars in the process. Microsoft believes that AI, specifically conversational interactions with chatbots like ChatGPT, is the future of search.
In the new Microsoft Bing the company is testing, chat and traditional search are combined into one unified text box. You could search for a web address and get a list of website links with a more conversational response on the side, or you could ask a question or issue a command and enter into a “conversation” with Bing. Microsoft’s examples include simple requests like “what’s the weather?” or “what’s the latest score for [insert favorite sports team]?” — in other worse, the kind of requests you might ask Alexa or Google Assistant. Things get really interesting, though, with more complex requests.
Want to make a specific recipe, but substitute an ingredient like eggs? Microsoft says the new Bing can “reviews results from across the web to find and summarize the answer you’re looking for,” presenting everything in a more digestible and ideally, useful, response from Bing itself. You can do the same thing with even more complicated requests, like asking for a complete itinerary for a trip to Hawaii, or asking Bing to research the best TV for you to buy.
In the updated version of Edge, Bing tags along in the “Edge Sidebar” to handle other tasks, like summarizing a webpage (Microsoft demoed Bing reading and summarizing multiple pages of a PDF) and composing text for emails and social media posts (Microsoft, naturally, demoed creating LinkedIn spam). Like many Microsoft projects, the company stresses that these tools could radically impact people’s productivity, creative or otherwise, by acting as more of a partner in research and administrative tasks, rather than just a search engine or browser.
If you’ve toyed around with the version of ChatGPT that’s available to the public, these tricks might not be too impressive. With the billions of texts ChatGPT has been fed, OpenAI’s vanilla version is capable of composing and answering questions (even incorrectly) just like the new Bing. Microsoft is also not alone in experimenting with AI chatbots and search. Google recently announced Bard, which uses the company’s LaMDA technology to similarly review and summarize search results and respond to more open-ended, creative questions. It’s a clear response to Microsoft’s aggressive push forward with OpenAI, a good illustration of how exposed Google is, and where corporate philosophy might differ between the two companies.
While it’s all fine and good to have a casual chat with AI, its willingness to “yes and” regularly leads search algorithms to provide straight-up false answers. This is well-documented with ChatGPT at this point, and will likely be true of the new Bing experience too. Microsoft says as much in an FAQ for the new Bing: “Bing will sometimes misrepresent the information it finds” and even if its answers “sound convincing” they can still be “incomplete, inaccurate, or inappropriate.”
It’s for that reason that it seems like Google is being a bit more cautious about how it rolls Bard to the public. And Bard has already gotten some facts wrong, even just in Google’s promotional images. One possible salve for Bing’s ignorance is that Microsoft plans on citing all of the information Bing provides in chat and summaries so you can easily follow a link to where the AI is getting that information from. But that opens up a whole other can of worms, because who’s going to take the extra step and click another link?
Not only could the popularity of something like the new Bing divert potential traffic, views, and advertising success away from websites that rely on good SEO to get people to view the ads on their website, but it’s also just a further barrier between you and an accurate response. For Microsoft, who only commands some three percent of search engine market share according to StatCounter, angering publishers might not be an issue, but for Google, it’s an existential risk.
As of right now, Microsoft doesn’t really have a great response to this problem. “At the end of the day, search is about fair use,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in an interview on the Decoder podcast following the AI event. “Ultimately all this content we only get to use inside a search engine if we’re generating traffic for the people who created it.”
That fair use arrangement is one that search engines like Google or Bing have lived and died by, but it doesn’t change the fact that displaying information differently will change how people interact with it. When asked directly about the issue, Nadella likened it to what search engines already do with instant answers. “Even search today has that, we have answers…I don’t think of this as a complete departure from what is expected of a search engine today, which is supposed to really respond to your query,” Nadella says.
Something’s going to change
The rush to incorporate chat into search could dramatically change the utility of search engines, both for the people who use them every day and the companies that rely on them to stay in business. There’s no clear answer as to how the relationship between online advertisers, publishers, and search engine providers will change in our rapidly accelerating chatbot-enabled future, but the possibility for Microsoft to make a dent in Google is on the table. It might further cloud where information actually comes from online, but if it loosens Google’s handle on the web at large, that seems like a risk some will be willing to take.