Microsoft’s attempts to compete with Google have been quite obvious over the last year. With the launch of Bing, there now truly stands a search engine that can reach the standards and qualities that Google has become famous for.

The difference between the two is that Google grew organically to its current state, while Bing has been carefully and thoughtfully designed. Responding slowly to meet its users needs, the current Google interface reflects countless actions from its users, and responses from Google’s programmers. We now have access to unbelievable search algorithms that yield exactly the information we are looking for, and functions such as “Instant search” that have made Googling that much easier. There also exists an extensive database of user generated content, and the ease of using Google has played a major role in the open source data movement. Nevertheless, Bing has artificially  created a search engine that meets Google’s standards.

Yes, these companies are search engines, but it has become obvious that their more primary projects are to be the portal (and master?) to all the world’s information. Google Scholar, news, maps, streetview, countless side projects and the Bing equivalents are representative of the immense fishing-nets these technological superpowers have cast out into the world of knowledge.

As a geographer, the maps are of most interest to me. It’s interesting to compare Google and Bing’s approach to cartography. Bing essentially copied the Google model, exactly: with one subtle difference. While Google’s satellite maps are taken from  directly above, Bing maps has the “Bird’s Eye” option; the photos are taken from a slightly lower angle.

The experiences of both maps, as a result, are dramatically different. And ultimately, to the common user, I think Bing has triumphed in this respect. The lower angles provide an easier plane for orientation. The buildings and streets are more recognizable, and the overlaid street map limits confusion. When you rotate to gauge the map, viewing it from another cardinal direction, the image changes to suit this angle, enabling views from the other side of the street. The result is a much deeper and thorough experience than the Google satellite equivalents.

Compare the satellite photos of my corner in Montreal, Duluth and St Urbain:

Bing satellite view is on the top, Google on the bottom

If evoking a sense of place is the name of the game, the Bing map definitely captures the character of the Plateau much more than the Google satellite photos. One can get a sense of the scale of the street and a feel for the architectural features of the buildings. The Google map, on the other hand, is confusing in that this block of triplexes could be any other block when viewed from above.

We have to consider though, that evoking a sense of place is not a map’s job. It’s to orient ourselves, (or if you’re someone concerned with collecting Remote Sensing data, it’s to carry out thoughtful analysis involving light spectrums, or something) and perhaps the view from above that Google provides does a better job of this. I tend to use Google more… I guess it’s habit, or a trust in the natural processes that lead to Google’s highly intuitive interface. But orienting ourselves consists more of the geometry of the streets, and perhaps I’ll adopt Bing maps soon as my “go to”.

In any case, it will be interesting to see Bing’s answer to street view (hopefully nothing too scary…).

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