U.S. Markets closed

Microsoft unveils new Bing search features Google doesn't have

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Google (GOOG, GOOGL) and Amazon (AMZN) might get all the publicity for artificial intelligence thanks to Google Assistant and Alexa, but Microsoft (MSFT) isn’t letting them hog the spotlight any longer.

The Redmond, Washington-based tech giant on Wednesday made a slew of announcements related to its AI efforts including a major partnership with none other than Reddit that will bring the social site’s forums and popular AMA interviews into Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Microsoft is also updating its own intelligent assistant, Cortana.

Bing goes full Reddit

Google is the search king. It’s not even a contest anymore with the company claiming not just desktop search supremacy, but owning a virtual global monopoly thanks to its Android operating system. But Microsoft is hoping a little bit of AI and Reddit magic can make Bing more attractive to the social site’s users.

That’s because Bing will now begin displaying Reddit posts directly in its search results. Search for a specific subreddit, for example, and Reddit will display individual results from that forum at the top of the search page. Which means if you type in Reddit games, you’ll see results for the games subreddit in your results. I’m hoping there are also some serious content filters in play there, too.

Microsoft says it’s also wrapping Reddit’s popular AMA question and answer threads into search results for AMAs done by famous people. Microsoft used Jane Goodall as an example, showing the top comments and top responses on Bing’s mobile site from the famed primatologist’s own AMA.

A search result for Jane Goodall showing her Reddit AMA.

Finally, Microsoft says it will bring Reddit results in the form of the most relevant comments to Bing search results. Microsoft’s example shows a user typing “best travel hacks” into the Bing search bar and getting the appropriate trending comment in return.

Reddit, though, can also function as a kind of wild west when it comes to certain forms of content, so it will be interesting to see how Bing handles queries from some of the social site’s more unseemly sources.

Improved Bing answers

In addition to pairing Bing with Reddit, Microsoft said its search engine will begin to provide more context for its answers. For example, if you type “how large is Afghanistan,” the search engine will give you the country’s numerical size, as well as put it into context by explaining that it is about the size of Texas.

Similarly, if you ask how many calories are in a slice of pizza, the search engine will give you the average calorie count and how long you’d have to run to burn it off.

“We want to reduce the number of times that people read a number and can’t make sense of it. And we want to do that by providing some context, or an analogy, or perspective, that puts it in more familiar terms usually related to their everyday experience,” said Jake Hofman, a senior researcher in Microsoft’s New York research lab, via a release.

For Google’s part, when you type a question into the search engine’s search bar, you’ll more often than not get a relevant reply pulled from a specific website. It’s helpful, but not exactly what Microsoft is proposing here.

The answers you’ll receive through Bing are few and far between, though. That’s because Microsoft has to input the data on its own. In other words, we’re a long way from having a search engine that can contextualize all of the questions we have. Microsoft’s next challenge is to develop software that can form these contextual relationships on its own.

Advanced image search

Microsoft says it’s also bringing advanced image search to Bing that will allow you to zoom in on an item and search for it separately from the original photo. Microsoft said that you’d eventually be able to view an image of say, a model wearing a set of clothes you like, zoom in on his watch and then search for that watch on its own, all through one photo.

Bing’s intelligent image search will let you shop for items you see in photos.

The company said that you’d then be able to shop for that watch without having to open a different browser window. That sounds seriously impressive if it works properly, though I haven’t been able to check it out in person. An image of the feature, though, made it seem rather easy to use. Microsoft said it will work with fashion items and furniture for now.

If it works the right way, you might be able to check out a photo of your favorite celebrity online and then buy the very shoes, hat or outfit they’re wearing. It’ll be a boon for impersonators!

Cortana gets some love

As far as Cortana goes, Microsoft announced that its intelligent assistant will now be able to read your most recent emails to you and allow you to dictate them. I asked Microsoft how it would deal with spam messages and a company representative said that you’d be to prioritize specific email accounts form which Cortana will read messages.

Then there’s the intelligent assistant’s new ability to chain skills. Microsoft says eventually Cortana will recognize that you just purchased tickets to a baseball game and then suggest that you use the calendar skill to add the game to your calendar. I’m on board for that as long as it doesn’t lock me into using Microsoft-specific tools or apps all the time.

Will these AI improvements make Bing and Cortana more attractive options than Google and Alexa? We’ll have to wait to see.

More from Dan:

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.