Microsoft today broadly rolled out a set of previously announced changes to Bing that represents the biggest overhaul to its search service since its debut 3 years ago. With these changes, Microsoft’s “decision engine” becomes more social and (Microsoft hopes) more useful, by integrating search results with information provided by the user’s friends via Facebook, Windows Live, and, soon, other online services.
“Your [ability] to share nearly everything you do, including where you are and who you are, in real time, from rich multimedia content to real-time streams to social conversations to applications that let you take action in the real world … presents an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how search should work,” two Microsoft corporate VPs, Derrick Connell and Harry Shum, wrote in a Bing Search Blog post announcing the changes.
“Research tells us that 90 percent of people consult with a friend or expert before making a decision … other people are often the most trusted source of information,” the post continues. “[But] search hasn’t kept pace.”
Microsoft believes it has now found an elegant way to surface friends’ recommendations in Bing search results, however. And the result, which can be seen now at www.bing.com/new, is interesting. (This functionality is now becoming broadly available via the normal Bing home page as well, but it appears that you have to opt in to it currently.)
As you can see from the screenshot below, Bing now provides a cleaner new three-column search-results interface that combines information from traditional, index-based results, blogs, and, now, your friends on connected social networking services.
(Windows Live is connected automatically if you sign in via a Windows Live ID, but you can connect to Facebook as well at the moment. Other services will be online soon, Microsoft says, including Quora, Foursquare, LinkedIn, and Google+.)
The main results column works much as before, with traditional search engine results. In the middle column, you’ll see related searches or contextual “snapshot” information. (You’ll see ads here if there isn’t enough related information.) But the biggest change is that obvious, dark gray column on the right: There, you’ll see results related to your friends. And you can use an “Ask friends” box to directly query friends about a search. Currently, this means you’re posting to Facebook with a link to the Bing results.
The quality of the results you’ll see across the three columns can vary wildly. It’s not clear yet that this is because of the newness of the functionality or simply because I’ve been searching for terms for which my Facebook friends have been silent.
The new service is also a bit balky at the moment—I had to try three different browsers before I could get it to work effectively—but I assume things will calm down as the rollout progresses. In the meantime, questions remain about the viability of “real-time” search results and whether social-networking integration with Internet search really does make sense. But credit Microsoft, at least, with the most aggressive move into this space yet.