July 3, 2009

What is a “Decision Engine”?

About a month ago Microsoft launched their new “decision engine” – Bing. From the commercials and print media that I saw it is being marketed as the next evolution in web-based information searching; so I thought I’d give it a look. Admittedly, I felt more drawn to go out of curiosity then out of need, because after seeing their advertisements I still wasn’t sure what a “decision engine” was or how it’s different from a “serch engine” (but that’s a whole different blog that I’ll save for some other time). That being said, I guess I can’t criticize their advertising campaign too much for the mere fact that it got me to go to the website. Hopefully the website itself can do a better job of explaining to me their value proposition and answer the big question: What is a “decision engine” and how is it going to make my life easier?

On their homepage they have a daily changing, regionally specific, image with a box in the middle to enter your free text query. As a novelty, they have embedded within the photo some tags that play off of the picture’s event/location. On the left hand side of the page are the different sub-categories for more focused searches (news, images, shopping, etc.) and at the bottom there are some links loosely tied to the photo, as well as the most popular search terms. At first glace it looks like it has the capabilities and/or functionality of most search engines and from the Bing homepage I don’t see any attributes that qualify it as a “decision engine”.

Eager to find out the answers to my big question I was excited when I saw a “Tour Bing” link tucked away on the top left of the page, maybe it could help resolve some of my open ended questions.

The tour started off highlighting four key areas that they can help me in my internet aided decision making if you will:

  • Travel
  • Shopping
  • Health
  • Local

(Yes, I know there is a fifth area called “Even More”, but that is just their default for everything else and it shouldn’t be called out in my opinion). There are hyperlink text below each header helping to show what is possible to do on the Bing website.

I went through most of the hyperlinks, but there’s not much that can replace the act of trying to do something yourself. For instance, you can read about swimming all you want, but until you get some water time it’s all just abstract theory. So armed with a very brief insight from their demos it was time to test drive this “decision engine” and see what it can do!

To start I was using it as a search engine and it was doing just fine. Some of the distinct features that it has that I though were worth taking note of were its running track of historical search terms that you just used (no more constant use of the back button) and on video search results you can instantly play the video by hovering your mouse over them – no additional mouse clicking needed (very cool). But this is a “decision engine”, not some ordinary “search engine” so it was time to go exploring deeper.

I had to book an upcoming trip to travel to my client’s headquarters just outside San Diego, maybe Bing can help me decide on what airline I should fly. I typed in ‘Denver to San Diego flights’ and I got the following:

The decision making assistance was not obvious in my opinion, so I continued poking around. I found some tools that showed the ticket prices departing from Denver going to San Diego for the next month. I had the ability to throttle the trip duration and departure dates, but ultimately I’d say by using Bing alone I’m no closer to booking my ticket. I tried to keep in mind that the on-line travel industry is very complex and competitive; there are whole sites (Orbitz, Kayak, Expedia, etc.) dedicated to helping you find the best travel pricing for your desired travel parameters.

Fortunately for this blog (and unfortunately for my wallet) my wife’s birthday was coming up and she had been unsubtly hinting that she could use a new laptop computer. I went to the shopping sub-category and typed in ‘new laptop computer’ and got:

On the results page there was a cool feature on the left hand side where I can apply filters and narrow down my query results by cost, brand, etc. Then, when I’ve come closer to a decision I can read reviews compiled from across a wide variety of websites. In the end, I’m not sure it provides more value than say an Amazon or going directly to a manufactures website.

Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to use Bing as my ‘go to place’ hoping to better familiarize myself with its features and functions. In my opinion, Bing seems to fit the clique ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. It has some nice things that make it a search engine “plus”, but that “plus” falls far short from being of great value (to me) on its own. So I’m reaching out to you, the readers, to help enlighten me because right now all I can conclude is that a “decision engine” is just a new name for a “search engine”…and to be fair, if I had to compete with Google I think I would invent a new term so we weren’t compared/marketed on a 1-to-1 basis either!

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