Microsoft's new search engine may not vanquish Google, but it certainly has captured a huge share of attention among everyone interested in brand names.

In case you missed the news reports or the relentless ads, Microsoft launched Bing at the end of May. Almost immediately, there was speculation about what the name was intended to mean or evoke.

Here's what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said about the name:

A new search product requires a name that clearly signals the arrival of something unique. We chose Bing because it's short, memorable, and symbolic of the moment when information and opportunity come together and a simple search becomes an engine for taking action.

The symbolism is opaque to me, but I do know that bing is hardly unique. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, for example, gives multiple definitions of bing. It's a term from British dialect, derived from Scandinavian languages, meaning "a heap or pile." (The Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms specifies that the pile is usually metallic, as in "a bing of lead ore.") In American slang, a bing is a solitary-confinement cell. There's an archaic sense of bing that means "go." And as an interjection, bing is imitative of "a sharp ringing sound." I could make a case for any of these definitions being appropriate for an Internet search engine.

Urban Dictionary's contributors expand the bing universe. It's a small bong for smoking marijuana; it's cocaine; it's a nickname for Binghamton, New York; it's someone who's rushing a fraternity and hasn't yet been dinged (rejected).

Widen the circle, and you encounter Bing cherries, named for a Chinese orchard foreman, Ah Bing, who worked in Oregon in the 1870s. Or maybe you remember another Northwestern Bing: Harry "Bing" Crosby, the crooner and Bob Hope co-star. Crosby took his nickname at the age of six from a newspaper comic strip, "The Bingville Bugle." (And "bing" as a slang term for cocaine comes from Crosby's hit version of "White Christmas.")

Austrian-born Rudolf Bing (1902-1997) was general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera for more than 20 years; his surname may have derived from the town of Bingen in Germany. Chandler Bing, played by Matthew Perry, was one of the central quartet on the long-running American TV sitcom Friends. (Trivia note: Chandler's middle name was Muriel.) Stanley Bing, the pen name of Gil Schwartz, is a humorist and business columnist for Fortune magazine. When Microsoft launched Bing, Mr. Bing posted a press release on his blog feigning "moderate outrage" and proposing a merger between the Bings, with Mr. Bing serving as "the logo, corporate symbol, and spokesman."

To fans of The Sopranos, Bing has only one possible association: the Bada-Bing go-go bar—often shortened to "the Bing"—operated by Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano's consigliere. The bar took its name from a catchphrase popularized by James Caan as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather.

There's a Bing energy drink whose Web address is www.getbinged.com. The Bing typewriter, introduced in 1927 by Bing Werke in Germany, was a lightweight "Lehrmittelschreibmaschine" (educational tool) now coveted by collectors.

Tech-savvy observers have noted Bing's family resemblance to Ping (a tool for updating online social networks), Ning (a service for creating a social network), Zing (an online music-delivery service), and Twing (a search tool that launched and flopped within less than a year; a tarp shelter called Twing is still on the market). There seems to be something about the -ing ending that rings a bell with technology startups. Or maybe it's the suggestion of gerundial verbishness that appeals. ("What are you doing?" "I'm Tw-ing!")

By association, Bing may remind you of bingo—the game of chance or the interjection shouted when a game is won or a hunch confirmed. Or perhaps your mind wanders to bling, slang for a bit of sparkling ornamentation.

Or could Bing be an acronym? John C. Dvorak, a columnist for PCMag.com, asked his Twitter followers what "Bing" stood for; answers included "Big Investment, No Goals," "Be Innovative, Not Geeky," and the people's choice: "But It's Not Google."

OK, maybe it's not Google, but Bing is a bang-up name: easy to spell, fun to say, and rich with mostly positive associations. And the negative associations? You can be sure that Microsoft has the cash and the clout to roll right over them.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 15th 2009, 1:13 AM
Comment by: Joe A. (Post Falls, ID)
I trust Microsoft with a search engine less than I trust Google, which ain't sayin' much. How do you like building a dossier on yourself with every search you make?

For private searching, try startpage(dot)com. They don't log your IP address, so you can search freely.

Well, you don't have "anything to hide"? GOOD. Consider this a protection of your civil rights, namely your 4th and 5th Amendments, which we all are sure to lose if we don't remain vigilant.

8-)
Monday June 15th 2009, 4:44 AM
Comment by: Hank J. (Woodstock, GA)
Just for thought:
Search Engines are furthering the process of logistical deduction and reasoning toward everyone eventually reaching the same conclusion or truth.
Monday June 15th 2009, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I think you missed the point with the word. I think BING evokes the sound when a microwave or some other appliance is performing a task with a set period. When complete, the device goes BING. That's the implied "action" that Ballmer's ideal "simple search" would generate.

Monte Python did a skit with a "Machine that Goes BING." (Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lusXJIfB4ys) The humor of the skit lay in the fact that going BING was the only thing the hugely expensive machine did. The BING ought to have indicated that the machine had finished a task, but there was none.
Monday June 15th 2009, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
As someone who is steeped in hi-tech brand assessment and endless debates, I find "Bing" as Microsoft's search engine brand to be fairly effective for a number of reasons:

1. Bing (at least to my hears) sounds fun and whimsical... similar to Google. Searching as "fun" is, in my view, partially what has made it a massive success. Search as "work" would have limited search's scope dramatically. The very fact that web search has started out (and continues to be) a consumer-friendly industry is really powerful, and that was not lost on Microsoft. This time. "Microsoft Live Search" (Microsoft's previous foray into search) felt a bit too serious and uninspired.

2. It's telling that "Microsoft" is nowhere near the branding of Bing. Good move, probably. Again, Microsoft is not synonymous with "fun" as a brand. How many times you do you say "Let's play some Microsoft's XBox today!" Let me answer for you: never. You say "Let's play some Xbox360 today!" -- leaving off Microsoft's umbrella brand. The truth is, Microsoft as a technology brand is so poorly defined, and as a result, easily poked at, that there isn't much value in it in the consumer space.

3. Bing is a FLD (four-letter-domain name), it's very easy to remember, it's merely 1 syllable, and it has a semi-strong vowel sound. All attributes of a memorable name.

So, while I think Bing passes the hurdles of names in brands, what it really needs to do is have obvious competitive differentiation in the market. Microsoft tried to frame it as a "decision engine" vs. a "search engine" -- but they seem to be hesitating on that front. It's odd, because it would appear to me that carving out a niche would be the smart move in the search space. Esp. if Microsoft could paint the picture that "decisions" are a higher-order service than "search."

Framing Bing as a decision-engine has some challenges, of course... "Bing" doesn't sound higher-order to "Google" -- it sounds competitive. So, here the brand name doesn't serve the greater purpose of raising the bar to the next level. "Bing" just doesn't sound evolutionary to "Google."

So, looking at the interplay of business and brand dynamics, could it be that Microsoft's decision around "Bing" a tactical success but strategic failure?

Jon
Monday June 15th 2009, 9:11 PM
Comment by: Zev L. (Teaneck, NJ)
I tried it out and my vote is clearly with Google! It just does not work well. I researched several topics and Bing clearly has no bang compared to Google!
Sunday July 5th 2009, 9:52 AM
Comment by: Edward M. (W. Brookfield, MA)
Microsoft's new search engine name seems to be the companion to many debates in blog-Dom worldwide. Since it is relatively new, the name has not caught on to seasoned social net workers as of yet. How about all the new users that start communicating every day? To them, 'Bing" has always been here and seems to be what is already established as they know no other moniker. Add an "e" to Bing and you get binge, which is what a lot of today's computer savvy users do when they log on. They binge on social network sites for hours.
Monday July 13th 2009, 3:28 AM
Comment by: Boris B. (San Diego, CA)
I like the article, thank you.

Bing may be converted into Caching, before 2011.

Mr. Balmer throughout his entire career said nothing worthy of lasting memories, it is the manner in which he delivers his statements that makes you say, "Oh, I remember that guy!".

I am not a fan of Microsoft and certainly not a fan of Google and all I want for Christmas is to see a real bloody mess of a war of titans which perhaps will result in us having a real choice between Google OS (comming soon) and MS Search engine (just came out). Well, both have strong ties to and a backing from Pentagon so may be they are already a single outfit and after official merger they will be called Moogle?

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