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Is Bing Optimizing for the Short Snout?

September 14th, 2009 · 11 Comments · General

In a post about Bing on CNET today, Rafe Needleman comments that “it makes business sense to pour resources into popular searches. Optimizing for the short snout pays.”

First, it’s an interesting counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that search (if not the future of business as we know it) is all about the “long tail“. But second and more importantly, it’s an intriguing claim about Bing’s strategy for differentiating itself from Google.

Needleman goes on to say:

I’d wager that this is how Bing is making its gains in market share. Latest Nielsen data says Bing gained 22 percent month-over-month in August, taking it to 10.7 percent of all U.S. searches. People probably try Bing for a travel or product search (where there’s also a cash-back financial kicker) and remember their good experience, and then they try it for more obscure searches and find it good enough. It highlights, I believe, an important flaw in Google’s historic strategy of indexing the entire Web equally well and making the user interface fast and consistent above all, as opposed to specializing as dictated by the query.

While I’ve never heard this claim about Bing before, it is consistent with something I’ve noticed–and which Nick Craswell said when he talked about Bing at SIGIR 2009. In the upper left area that Bing calls the table of contents (TOC), Bing selectively presents a refinement interface based on the entity type it infers for the search query. For example, a search for Argentina returns options that include Argentina Map, Argentina Tourism, and Argentina Culture; while a search for Abraham Lincoln returns options that include Abraham Lincoln Speeches and Abraham Lincoln Facts.

It’s a nifty feature, even if marketers and reporters have struggled to label it. But, as Needleman says, it does indeed focus on the short snout. For example, there are no TOC options when you search for faceted search, since the technical term doesn’t match a recognized entity type. Searches for names of auto companies, such as Toyota, yield a rich set of options, while those for scooter companies like Vespa do not. Similarly, searches for celebrities receive VIP treatment, as compared to searches for ordinary people that just return a list of search results.

All in all, I’m inclined to agree with Needleman that Bing is focusing on the short snout–and I love that phrase to describe it. The open question is whether he’s right that users “remember their good experience, and then they try it for more obscure searches and find it good enough”. It would be great to see data to confirm or refute that hypothesis.

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jeremy // Sep 15, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Perhaps they are focusing on the short snout. Check out these quotes from MS employee Don Dodge:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8256046.stm

    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.

    “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,” Don Dodge, Microsoft’s director of business development told BBC News.

    “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.

    Then again, I think everyone optimizes for the short snout. Well, maybe for the snout and for the fat belly. But certainly not for the long tail.

    That’s what I was getting into with P. Norvig a few months ago. It was the notion that by relying on big-data only techniques for solving lots of problems, you are essentially focusing your algorithms on areas that have big data. By definition there will never be big-data in the long tail, and so you’ll never have solutions for needs that arise from the long tail.

    So maybe Bing is focusing on the head of the head right now, and other search engines get more into the tail of the head. But nobody really gets into the real tail. Everyone optimizes for the head. Right?

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 15, 2009 at 11:41 am

    That’s a fair point, though I think the details matter. For example, I was having a discussion just last night about the notability criteria for Wikipedia, and my stance was that Wikipedia’s attempt to keep the entry barrier high serves its user base well. At the same time, I’d be pretty upset if my web search were restricted to Wikipedia. And yet I am happy to toss out much of the web that is spam or worse.

    Google and others endorse algorithms that have a strong prior (i.e., static and query-independent) component to their ranking measures, and thus filter out much of the “long tail” content for “short snout” queries. In contrast, Bing’s approach is to selectively enrich the user experience for “short snout” queries. Actually, Google does that too, though to a much lesser extent.

    So, at the very least, I’d say that not everyone optimizes for the same head.

  • 3 jeremy // Sep 15, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Oh, I agree with you that not everyone optimizes for the same head. And that’s one of the reasons I strongly advocate rotating one’s search engine usage constantly. Only by so doing can you learn which optimization works best on which queries — which details matter for your current task.

  • 4 jeremy // Sep 15, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    And yet I am happy to toss out much of the web that is spam or worse.

    Just a minor point: The tail isn’t spam. Sure, there is a lot of spam in the tail. But there is a lot of missed relevance, too. It’s just that the signal to noise ratio is lower in the tail, and that makes it harder for big-data techniques to detect.

    So isn’t one of the whole purposes of HCIR to give the user control over part of the search process? Because humans can do a much better job than heavily prior-ed, big data search engines at separating out the signal from the noise, and in a manner that is the most relevant to the user’s task at hand.

  • 5 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 15, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I agree that today’s search engines pre-filter access too aggressively, and that giving more control to users would make it possible to change that. Still, much as I like the ability to restrict my search to Wikipedia, I suspect that many people want filters that are designed to emphasize the head–and that it makes sense to invest more heavily in optimizing for that head, as Bing is doing. What would be nice is to make all of this machinery user-controlled rather than a system-controlled black box.

  • 6 jeremy // Sep 15, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Agreed.

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