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Web searchers want more pictures; Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) wants to help.
"A study conducted by Microsoft Research shows that consumers can process results with images 20% faster than text only results. So it's clear that images play a big part in helping consumers with a variety of search activities," wrote Microsoft's Todd Schwartz in explaining why Bing is testing visual search (you can try it here).
The beta version has a pretty slick look to it, closer to Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iTunes interface than anything Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) or Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) has built. But the service is also incomplete, as you'd expect from a beta product.
The few visual searches available also have some limits. For example, a list of NFL players omits photos for rookie starters Knowshon Moreno of the Denver Broncos and Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions.
Even so, the format and click-through data are pretty impressive. Click on the photo for the Giants' Eli Manning and you'll see his first-game key stats, his Wikipedia entry, his official NFL bio, and more. Google displays much of the same, including top news stories, but lacks the official headshot and game stats.
That may not sound like much. And it wouldn't be. But in the search war, incremental improvements can open miles-wide chasms. Just look at Google. Is it noticeably faster or better than its peers? Not really; Google has won a game of inches, and has collected billions in the process.
You might even say The Big G has been good with words and word searches. Now Microsoft is betting you want more. And since one picture is worth 1,000 words -- or more than 360,000 search results in the case of Eli Manning -- Mr. Softy is dusting off the old photo albums.
Smile for the camera, Google.
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