Microsoft has added images to its Bing search engine so search results now return images as well as text. Searches can also be started with preselected images at http://www.bing.com/visualsearch.
A search for "smartphones" produced more than 32 million results and clicking on the Images link produced 1,000 pictures so a phone could be selected by appearance rather than name. Scrolling over a phone image produces the image name and an option to show similar images. Caption details for the images can be turned on or off.
"A study conducted by Microsoft Research shows that consumers can process results with images 20 percent faster than text-only results. So it's clear that images play a big part in helping consumers with a variety of search activities," Todd Schwartz, Bing product manager, wrote on the Bing community blog.
The visual searches are powered by Microsoft's Silverlight technology and require that the browser helper be installed. Currently Bing's visual searches are in the beta stage and limited to categories set by Microsoft.
When potential buyers research products online, Schwartz wrote, images help them gather information. He compared a search for laptops, for example, to searching through an online catalog.
The new visual feature appears to be another way for Microsoft to chip away at Google's search-market share. Currently Google has about 83 percent of the market, Yahoo is second with seven percent, and Microsoft has about 3.5 percent.
In an effort to compete with Google, Microsoft recently reached an agreement with Yahoo under which Bing will become the primary search engine on Yahoo properties. In return, Microsoft gets access to Yahoo's search technology.