Just hours after Microsoft launched the biggest revamp of its Bing search engine since its inception 3 years earlier, the search industry’s 800-pound gorilla announced an update of its own. Google says that its new “Knowledge Graph” feature doesn’t just rely on users’ friends, as in the Bing change. Instead, it uses a database of more than 500 million people, places, and things to help refine searches. Take that, Microsoft!

“The Knowledge Graph enables you to search for things, people, or places that Google knows about—landmarks, celebrities, cities, sports teams, buildings, geographical features, movies, celestial objects, works of art, and more—and instantly get information that’s relevant to your query,” Google Senior Vice President Amit Singhal writes in a post to Google’s Inside Search Blog. “This is a critical first step towards building the next generation of search, which taps into the collective intelligence of the web and understands the world a bit more like people do.”

And Google isn’t exactly holding back when it compares this change to what Microsoft has implemented in Bing. Instead of relying just on “public sources” like Facebook and Wikipedia, Google’s Knowledge Graph contains more than 500 million objects, Singhal says, as well as more than 3.5 billion facts about the relationships between these objects. In other words, sure, you could ask your friends for advice. But why not find out what’s really going on?

google-2012update
Knowledge graph results shown in a Google search

That said, Google’s coming search changes seem to provide a multi-pane interface that’s similar to the Bing redesign. And Microsoft’s integration of Facebook results isn’t for looking up “facts”—like information about the Taj Mahal, as Google uses in an example—but rather for advice about things such as local restaurants and shops. These are indeed the types of queries in which people would normally invoke the advice of people they know who live nearby.

Put simply, this week’s Bing and Google search changes serve only to amplify the differences between the two services. That is, Bing remains a vertical search-oriented “decision engine” that excels at certain tasks, whereas Google remains the obvious general-purpose research assistant it has always been. If you’re looking for information about a local sushi restaurant, your friends’ experiences—and thus Bing—might be the better choice. But if you’re looking for information about the history of sushi, most people will continue to use Google.

Google isn’t actually rolling out its Knowledge Graph today. But it’s coming over the coming weeks, the company says. I’m sure Google didn’t pre-announce it to quell any overly positive news stories about the Bing enhancements.