Search goes social

Search goes social

Microsoft and Facebook join hands to overhaul Bing to challenge Google’s grip on the search engine market, says Nick Wingfield

Qi Lu, president of Microsoft's online services division, at his office in Bellevue, Washington. NYTWhen Facebook goes public in the coming weeks, there will be a lot of winners. Among them is one of the stalwarts of the tech industry, Microsoft, which has a small stake in the company.

But Microsoft has an even bigger bet on Facebook through an alliance between its Bing search engine and the social network. And that partnership is about to get even deeper.

Last week, Microsoft introduced a set of changes to Bing that it says will improve searches by tapping into the expertise of friends on Facebook and other social networks.

The company hopes to mine people’s online social connections to provide more personal search results for everything from hotel searches in Hawaii to movie recommendations.

For example, if you are logged into your Facebook page through Bing, and you search for “best hotels in Maui,” you will get results with pictures of friends who have shared some affinity for Maui before on Facebook, whether by listing it as their hometown in their Facebook profile, liking the island on Facebook or posting photos from a previous Maui vacation.

“This is a fundamentally different way to look at search,” Qi Lu, president of Microsoft’s online services division, said in a recent interview in a high-rise building here, a few miles from its main campus, where its Internet operations are based.

The new version of Bing is the biggest overhaul to the search engine since Microsoft introduced it three years ago. It is the result of a continual conversation at the company about how to make Bing a more effective competitor to that other search engine – Google – and try to stem its considerable losses. In its last fiscal year, Microsoft reported operating losses from its online services division of $2.6 billion.

Strengthening the ties between Bing and Facebook is also another sign of how Microsoft and Facebook are working together to provide a counterbalance to their common adversary, Google.

While Google is by far the dominant player in the Internet search business, it also competes with Microsoft in productivity applications and with Facebook through its Google Plus social network.

And like Microsoft, Google earlier this year began to integrate data from its social network into its search results through an initiative it calls “search, plus your world.” Google declined to comment for this article.

The alliance between Facebook and Microsoft, so far, has barely caused a dent in Google. The two companies first announced a plan to work together on what they called “social search” in late 2010 and a bit later began to pepper Bing search results with a limited amount of data it began to pull from Facebook.

If a person searched for the movie “The Avengers,” for example, Bing would annotate the results to indicate whether the searcher’s Facebook friends had “liked” any of the Web pages found in that search previously on the social network.
Microsoft executives said that approach, on its own, did not have much success, partly because it cluttered the display of search results.

“It was a good experiment, but it wasn’t working in the way we expected,” said Derrick Connell, a corporate vice president of Bing program management.

The new Bing has a much cleaner design that tucks all of the social search results away into a sidebar on the Bing search results pages, where they are now clearly distinct from the traditional Bing search results on the left side of the screen.

But the revamping also goes much further in the kind of information it picks up from Facebook.

For the search for “best hotels in Maui,” for example, the results will also allow searchers to post questions about favorite hotels to the friends with Maui expertise that Bing has identified, without leaving the Bing search results page.
Microsoft executives say they will show only data from Facebook friends’ pages that could be seen by going directly to the pages.

“Bing is taking a thoughtful approach to giving people the option to call on their friends as part of the search experience,” said Ethan Beard, director of platform partnerships at Facebook.

Bing will also suggest other people it deems to be “influential” on a particular search topic by scouring more public social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn and Quora.
“I think Bing has very elegantly incorporated a lot of information into the search results page, which is a formidable challenge,” said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst at the Altimeter Group, who had seen the new Bing design. “What really remains to be seen is how users will accept this.”

Microsoft’s effort to make Bing stand out from Google in the search business is led by Lu, a wiry, intense former Yahoo executive, who regularly asks his lieutenants to ponder an existential question for Microsoft’s search efforts.

“This is one of our key challenges – answering the question, ‘Why Bing?”’ Lu said recently, as he roamed in front of a whiteboard sketching out his vision for the evolution of search.

Wall Street investors have asked that question too, ever since Microsoft years ago began plowing money into building a credible competitor to Google. Despite the financial losses, the company shows no sign of backing away from its investment.
“On the business side, it’s really sort of questionable,” said Brendan Barnicle, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities.

Microsoft has gained a bigger portion of the US search market, rising to 15.3 percent of searches in March, up from 13.9 percent in the same month a year earlier, according to comScore.

But most of those gains appeared to come at the expense of Yahoo, not Google. Microsoft and Yahoo have a multiyear agreement in which Bing provides search results on Yahoo.

In March, Google accounted for 66.4 percent of U.S. searches, according to comScore.

What makes Google’s grip on the search market even more vexing is that there appears to be little difference between the quality of its search results and Bing’s.
Microsoft regularly conducts blind tests of users in which it shows them Bing and Google search results side-by-side, without identifying which search engine the results are coming from. In recent tests, Microsoft said most of those users said they favored Bing’s results.

Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Search Engine Land, a website devoted to Internet search, agrees that Bing and Google are “pretty even” in the quality of their search results.

In theory, it’s extremely easy for people to switch to a new search engine. Yet, as Microsoft executives concede, Google has become a habit for people that is difficult to break. For most people, the idea of switching to Bing has seemed unnecessary, Sullivan said.

“It’s like saying, Here’s another person who could be a great best friend for you,” he said. “Why don’t you become best friends with them?”

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