Bing is introducing a revamp today that Microsoft executives are calling "the most significant update" to the search engine since it launched three years ago. Its most important improvement is the way it reimagines how information from social networks should be integrated with search results.
Instead of sprinkling them throughout the main set of "blue links" (as they have since Bing began adding them two years ago), the search engine is creating a whole new widget, over on the side, that doesn’t treat social as a "result" to be reviewed but as a starting point for a conversation.
Users may or may not like the tools that Bing is launching today—this is, after all, a v1 of a new idea. (Note: Microsoft says it is rolling these changes out gradually over "the next days and weeks," so not all users will have access to them immediately.) But the concepts underlying them are powerful ones, and in the long run, they will help the search industry reimagine how its products should work in a digital world that is no longer simply made up of static pages.
The core idea underlying Bing’s revamp is that "people are as important as pages," Bing Director Stefan Weitz tells Fast Company. "People tell us they trust their friends above all other forms of recommendations," he explains. The revamp then, is an attempt to "mimic that natural human tendency to ask questions and have people answer them."
The left side of the page continues to display typical search results for people who want to find their answers that way. But on the right side of the page, Bing now includes an app that tells you who among your friends in Facebook might have expertise in the topic you’re asking about (provided you’ve given Bing permission to access Facebook). You can then enter a question for that person and post it directly to their Wall.
The greatest use of this new "Friends Bar" is helping you discover people you know who have expertise you weren’t aware of. For example, if you’re searching for a romantic bistro in Los Angeles, you might think of pinging your buddy Joe who lives down there. But you might not be aware that your friend Suzy just took a trip there and hit a bunch of restaurants she liked. By mining your friends’ activity on Facebook (with your permission), the search engine surfaces people you wouldn’t have thought to ask.
Also in the "Friends Bar," Bing lists people you don’t necessarily know, but who its algorithms have determined are potentially knowledgeable about the subject at hand (or, in Bing nomenclature, "are influential about" it), so that you can similarly reach out to them for help. All of this is a big conceptual leap from the idea of searching documents, the paradigm Google pioneered over a decade ago. Google, however, was born into a digital world where there essentially wasn’t anything but documents to mine, and as such, mastered the art of identifying and ranking relevant pages.
Bing, however, was born into a new world, where the new tools (social media, blogs) allow everyday people to create information that could, if mined correctly, identify them as experts. (Or, as Weitz puts it, social "allows people to be modeled in more fidelity.") Bing’s revamp, then, is a first stab at trying to leverage the new forms of content being created and develop an altogether new paradigm for searching. It’s not just about finding static entities to review. It’s about trying to more closely emulate the ideal search experience: picking up a phone and quizzing a knowledgeable friend. "We’re trying to bring in that notion of conversation into the entire experience," Weitz says.
Bing’s revamp puts it a step ahead of Google in moving the search industry forward. While Google has also started integrating social elements into its search results, it continues to treat people the way it does pages. It treats the content they create as material to be linked to, rather than thinking of connecting their users with the people themselves.
And it recognizes a shift in how people look for information on today’s Internet. "Billions of questions get asked on social network sites," Robert Dietz, the principal design manager for Bing, tells Fast Company. "There’s a need to support those questions in a much more seamless way."
Still, the current implementation of Bing’s new ideas is far from perfect. The system is currently only able to search certain networks—Facebook (to find your friends) and Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Quora, LinkedIn, and Blogger (to find "influentials")—rather than the entire social media universe. Each company is a "walled garden," and Bing has to hammer out individual agreements with each to access the content created by their users.
That’s a problem that may not change anytime soon. "The web as we know it is fractured and is continuing to be fractured more by siloed social networks, closed systems, and apps," Federated Media’s John Battelle, author of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, tells Fast Company. "There’s value in all that interaction that occurs in all these places. But to date they have often been uncrawlable by traditional web search."
Another shortcoming is that Bing isn’t taking all user-generated content into consideration when it makes its people-relevance decisions. That’s because it would take an extraordinary amount of computing power to analyze all the free text people generate and determine its meaning (for example, if you write about "turkey," are you talking about the bird or the country?).
So instead, Bing is simply looking at what your friends Like, share, or search for to assess their expertise on certain topics. But those proxies might not be sufficient to actually get you to the right people. "Just because there’s someone in my social graph who Likes Hawaii doesn’t mean they’re the best person to recommend a hotel on Kauai," Rebecca Lieb of the Altimeter Group tells Fast Company.
And finally, users may simply find the new interface clunky. It now squeezes three main columns onto the page—the list of blue links on the left, the Friends Bar on the right, and a third column, called "Snapshot," with widgets that help you make restaurant reservations or book hotel rooms.
Nevertheless, Bing is exploring important paradigm shifts that take into account how the digital world has changed since Google architected the original standards for search in the late 1990s. As the Altimeter Group’s Lieb says, "Some of the data and user behaviors that will come back as a result of [users playing with the new Bing] will go far to help shape the next iteration of social search."