by Carrie-Ann Skinner, PC Advisor - In June 2009 along came Bing, Microsoft's revamped search engine. This replaced the Live Search brand and was geared up to challenge Google's hold on the search market.
It's had a design overhaul, with the new-look engine getting a navigation bar, a preview feature and categorised search results. But Microsoft says Bing's main improvement is its ability to scour the web more deeply and to deliver more relevant results faster.
Microsoft must be doing something right. ComScore reported that Bing's share of the US search market rose from 9.4 percent in September to 10.7 percent in December. However, this hasn't affected Google much: its own share rose from 64.9 to 65.7 percent. Microsoft has some way to go before knocking Google off the top spot.
With this in mind, the company has launched a number of enhancements to Bing Maps and launched StreetSide, its answer to Google Street View.
Over the following pages, we'll show you how to get the most out of the search engine and the new functions in Bing Maps.
Google prides itself on having a clean, minimalist design and offering a list of highly relevant results. Bing, on the other hand, organises its results into search categories such as Maps, Images, Videos and Shopping. These categories are created dynamically in response to your query.
Rather than relying heavily on the keywords used in your query, Bing delivers results based on what it thinks you're looking for. Microsoft insists this technology will help you find the answer you're looking for more quickly.
A quick glance at the Bing home page reveals a more colourful design than that of Google. Below the search box are three links to items Microsoft thinks you might find interesting.
The Bing home page changes daily, depicting different locations and events. Hover your cursor over the image for links to further information.
To search, simply enter your keyword or phrase into the search box and press Enter or click the orange magnifying glass symbol to the right. Bing will suggest popular search phrases that match your query as you type. These suggestions can be turned off by selecting Preferences in the top righthand corner and removing the tick next to 'Turn suggestions on'.
Bing's safety features, which are set to Moderate by default, can also be adjusted from the Preferences pane. Select Change, then choose Strict, Moderate or Off.
The main search results window displays the most popular results. Click the links below your search phrase or keyword to drill down to categories such as News, Images, Videos and Biography.
Advanced search options
You can further refine your search using the Advanced Search button located to the right of the main window. This lets you search for results that include a specific phrase, web pages that are listed at a particular site, domain or country, or those written in a particular language. Alternatively, you can display UK-only results by typing loc:UK in the search bar.
The Related Searches box on the lefthand side of the search results window can be used for refining searches with other popular phrases. Click the Images category and a list of related people will be displayed on the lefthand side of the window.
Searching for Michael Jackson, for example, brings up everyone from his family members to artists he worked with and those he is said to have influenced.
Bing also lets you specify the file type that you want to search for. Simply enter your keyword followed by contains: and the file type you want. Alternatively, you can search only for pages that have your keyword in the title by searching for intitle:, followed by your keyword.
Typing maps after your keyword when searching for a location will display a tiny map of the area. Click this to open a full-size Bing Map in your browser.
Quick Previews is another useful feature. It lets you take a sneak peek at a website without navigating there to find out whether it's what you're looking for.
To activate Quick Previews, hold the cursor over the righthand side of the search result and a blue arrow will be displayed. This will be followed by a box containing text from the web page in question.
This also works for videos. Simply hover the cursor over a video and playback will begin. It's worth bearing in mind that you'll only be able to view a 30-second clip before the preview stops.
You can also search for specific-length videos from your favourite TV programmes. Enter the TV show's name then select either Short (less than five minutes), Medium (between five and 20 minutes) or Long (20 minutes and longer) from the lefthand side.
Bing offers a shopping comparison service in conjunction with Ciao. Simply enter the name of a product and click the Shopping category from the results pane. Hit Compare to see a list of deals available from online suppliers.
More than just a browser
Like Google, Microsoft's Bing can do a lot more than provide simple search results. Here are some of its other uses:
Calculator: Type your calculation into the search bar and click the magnifying glass. The results page will display the answer, plus any relevant web pages.
Dictionary: Type a word, followed by define or definition, into the search bar and Bing will display its meaning.
Weather forecaster: Type weather followed by your current location to get a five-day forecast of how things are shaping up.
Currency converter: Type an amount of one currency followed by that which you want to convert it into, such as 12 euros in GBP.
Security and privacy
Security and privacy settings for both your search engine and your browser should be adjusted for the individual user. Bing offers three levels of filtering, suitable for children, teenagers and adults. To change the security settings, head to the Preferences menu in Bing or the Search Settings menu in Google.
Mozilla, the organisation behind the Firefox web browser, recently urged web users to switch to Bing after Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt played down the need for security during a TV interview. A toolbar for Firefox that lets you use the search engine without navigating to the site is available here.
Internet Explorer (IE) 8.0 integrates Bing search slightly differently. An accelerator function lets you perform in-page searches without navigating away from the current page. Right-click a highlighted word or phrase on a web page or hover the cursor over the blue icon above the word to enter a Bing search term. Accelerators for other sites including Amazon and eBay are also available.
IE 8.0 also offers Web Slices, letting you keep up to date with such things as the weather and the top news stories without needing to navigate away from your current page. Visit the Bing News page and add the Top Story Web Slice to your Favorites bar. This will be highlighted when new information appears.
Step 1. Head to bing.com/maps. To download the Bing Maps beta you'll need to be on the US site, which you can access via a link at the bottom of the page. Click the 'Try it now' link on the Bing Maps Beta box to download the software.
Step 2. You'll be prompted to install Microsoft Silverlight. Click 'Install now'. In the next window choose Save As and wait while the file downloads. Double-click this file to launch the installer. Select Run, Install Now. Once the installation is complete you'll be prompted to set Bing as your default search engine. Click Next.
Step 3. Restart your browser as prompted, then visit the US Bing Maps site once again. Bing Maps will automatically adjust the map shown onscreen to reflect your current location. A weather report, images and even driving instructions are provided on the lefthand side of the window.
Step 4. To view the map in StreetSide, select the blue person icon at the bottom of the screen. Areas that have been photographed are indicated with a blue dot at a country level or blue shaded areas if you're zoomed into street level. Simply click the blue area and watch as the map zooms in to display real photographs.
Step 5. Use the compass to help find your way through streets or move the cursor to where you want to go. Click the blue person icon to move between locations. The plus and minus signs let you zoom in or out of the map, while the back arrow returns you to your previous location.
Step 6. StreetSide is limited to areas in the US for the time being and Microsoft hasn't let on when it's adding this function to UK Bing maps. It's still worth seeing what it can do, however. To access the other new functions, click the orange arrow on the bottom left. This lets you access 16 Map apps.
Step 1. Photosynth stitches together digital images to create 3D scenes that can be viewed from all angles. Bing's Photosynth tool lets you view Photosynths in the location you're searching for. Select Photosynth from the Map apps. Photosynthed locations display photo icons with a green bar.
Step 2. Click the icon to view the photosynth. Once you've opened a photosynth, hover your cursor over the image and drag on the arrows to rotate the image. You can also zoom in or out of the image. Select an overhead view that allows you to choose one particular angle or return to the traditional road map.
Step 3. Bing Maps also includes a Twitter map that overlays tweets on the map using geo-location data. Select the Twitter icon from the Map apps, then hover the cursor over the icons on your map to see the user's name and the date and time. Click the icon to read the tweet.
Step 4. The Local Lens app indexes local blogs using clues from within the copy, attempting to lay them over the map in the appropriate location. This feature is currently only available in US cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. Likewise, the Current Traffic app doesn't cover the UK yet.