A massive upgrade to Microsoft’s Bing search engine—or “decision engine,” as the company calls it—includes a number of new features, including two with the potential to take Internet search to the next level.
For many types of searches, Bing now behaves less like a traditional page-of-results search engine and more like an interactive app that lets you manipulate aspects of your search on the fly. Bing now also incorporates a “social search” feature that looks through recommendations made by your Facebook friends to deliver more refined, personalized results.
“It used to be that with search, we tried to create the equivalent of a library card catalog for the Web,” says Stefan Weitz, Bing’s director at Microsoft. “That was what we could do with the technology. Now, it’s more like walking up to a librarian and saying, ‘I’m thinking of taking a trip to the Bahamas in January. What resources should I use to plan it?’”
In fact, Bing now responds to travel-related searches by generating a Web-based application for finding and booking flights and lodging, rather than simply returning a list of relevant Web pages. Type “San Juan Puerto Rico” into Bing and it will present an in-page widget that lets you book a flight from what Bing deduces is the airport nearest you. Bing will also present the price of the lowest round-trip fare as a large, friendly link, and will warn you with an up arrow if “fares are rising.” Other categories of search that produce a more interactive experience include those relating to music, clothes shopping, and consumer electronics.
Overall, Weitz says, the goal is to move away from what some search developers now derisively call “ten blue links” in order to help users reach their goal that began with a search—for instance, to book a flight without worrying about missing a better deal available somewhere on one of many travel sites.
What is probably Bing’s bigger upgrade is the new social search feature, which uses data from your Facebook social circle to provide personalized search results. Thanks to a deal with Facebook, Bing automatically recognizes your Facebook account (assuming you’ve logged in recently) and searches through content that your Facebook friends have recommended by clicking the “Like” button found on many Web sites.
Microsoft’s alliance with Facebook could give it a key advantage over Google in the race to provide a better search experience. Google has also sought to improve its results by tapping information from users’ social sphere, but its own social networking services have not been adopted anywhere near as widely as Facebook, so the information to which Google has access is relatively limited. In contrast, Facebook provides Bing with an ever-growing data mine of friends’ links. This is important because while Bing has rapidly grown to second place behind Google in the search market, the market analytics company Hitwise reports that Google’s market share is holding fast at about 70 percent of Internet searches. Instead of stealing traffic from Google, Bing has pushed other search providers off the playing field. Hitwise’s latest report claims that all other services now add up to less than five percent of the search market.