It's a pinnacle of achievement in marketing for a brand name to become a verb. There are surely companies out there who dearly wish that phrases like "Let's Volvo over to East Grinstead" or "I'm going out to get absolutely Strongbowed" had somehow edged their way into the English lexicon. But while hoovering, sellotaping and xeroxing are almost linguistic hangovers from days when those brands dominated their respective markets, when we tell people that we're Googling something, that's likely to be exactly what we're doing. We're vaguely aware that other search engines are available, but we regard them with the same puzzled curiosity we reserve for fringe political parties, or doggedly persistent bands from the 1980s that we thought had split up 20 years ago. There are disagreements about the extent to which Google dominate online search, but one statistic, released last week in the wake of the relaunch of Microsoft's search engine under the gloriously onomatopaeic name 'Bing', was particularly eye-opening. Last Thursday, according to one research firm, Yahoo! dealt with 5.13 per cent of searches, Microsoft 5.62 per cent, and Google 87.62 per cent. Microsoft was delighted that Bing beat Yahoo! into third place, but I'm not sure how much kudos is attached to becoming the world's biggest search engine that isn't Google. Creating a Google-killer isn't easy.
Google reached pole position by abandoning over-cluttered portals full of share prices and news clippings for an austere search box and a button; so, having established that users don't much care for bells and whistles, it becomes about the quality of the search results – something that we're not really in the best position to judge. If we don't get what we want out of Google, we assume it's our fault and just try again with an adjusted query. But Microsoft will hope that Bing's delicate expansion into semantic, predictive search techniques – ie results varying according to the time the search is performed, for example – will automatically give us the results we're after without us having to develop Google-style techniques of using operators such as minus signs and quotation marks to leach away the stuff we want. I don't often say it, but good luck to Microsoft – not least because it doesn't feel healthy having one company dominating online search. But it'll be a while, I imagine, before people ask you to hang on one second, because they're just going to Bing something.
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Currently under discussion: How much is the internet changing the English language?