Microsoft BingIf you know what something looks like, but not what it's called - a dog breed, for example - Microsoft's new Bing Visual Search beta is ready and able to help. A picture really can be worth a thousand words.

The dog breed example is a pretty good one, and part of Bing's Visual Search Gallery. I learned that the cute dog in a set of adverts is a Bull Terrier. Bing provided a collection of links after I clicked on the breed picture in the gallery, and that's where I found the Wikipedia entry used in my own Bull Terrier link.

Bing's visual dictionary displays 161 different dog breeds, which seems like a lot, but probably doesn't include all recognised breeds. Or maybe it does - the Visual Search page doesn't include any words that could help with understanding the search universe.

And did I mention that bringing up the pictures in Bing Visual Search can be agonisingly slow? It can be. Also bear in mind that it's still in beta, so you may not be able to get all the functionality to work right away.

Applications of Visual Search

It's easy to see how visual search might be helpful for a variety of topics. Peppers used in cooking, popular fruits/vegetables, current models of car and so on. All topics I think about visually.

Visual Search seems to work best, as Bing now offers it, when there is a fairly finite group that should include what you are searching for.

Less successful was a visual search - again using the gallery - for mobile phones. Bing only offers 125 models, which seems like a pretty small sample. Good luck finding that mobile phone you happened to see someone using on the plane.

Then there are huge categories of things perhaps best represented visually. Take birds, for example: there are hundreds of species you could potentially have seen in your garden, which makes for a massive collection of images to scroll through. And one picture may not do the species justice, or even look particularly like your example.

Yes, Bing does offer some subcategories of visual searches, but it needs to do visual categories as well. Bing considerably misses the mark when it offers a visual display of phones ranked by carrier or price but not by features easily seen - such as a keyboard. How about showing me different phones and allowing me to sort based on phones that look more or less like the one chosen?

For my birds example, how about showing me more yellow and black birds because that's what I clicked on?

You get the idea and so will Bing, I predict. Microsoft is finally showing us that it can do a search engine that people will actually use and is doing so with differentiation, not mere brute force.

Visual Search is unlikely to become a user's first stop when looking for information. But when you only know what something looks like, a visual search capability, done properly, can save the day.

Microsoft isn't there yet, but this is a beta that shows promise.

See also:

Microsoft gives Bing visual search

Microsoft Bing coming to iPhone apps

Microsoft Bing review

PC World