Friendly advice: Bing taps into Facebook to show users more relevant results.
Bing “has the potential to make every search results page personal and distinct,” says Search Engine Land contributing editor Greg Sterling. “Ironically, Google’s PageRank [the algorithm that enabled Google to provide much better search results when it launched in 1998] was social and used link authority [the number of in-bound links a page has]—a kind of social consensus—to determine the order of results.”
Sterling says that links no longer carry the same social weight. Nowadays they’re often generated by software, in order to improve a page’s search ranking. And search-engine optimization experts try various tricks to push a page up Google’s ranking. The same goes for Bing’s standard search results. (Search Engine Land has an exhaustive list of all new Bing features announced last week.)
When Google debuted in 1998, its PageRank-scored results were the best way to find the most relevant Web pages for a given search term. Other algorithms—which relied on keywords—were easily fooled by pages containing lots of keywords. But search-engine optimization, or SEO, is now, by many estimates, a billion-dollar industry. It devotes massive resources to cross-linking hundreds of sites that purport to recommend particular pages. Some marketers also buy links from popular sites, undermining Google’s attempt to rank pages honestly.
Weitz likes to use the example of restaurant reviews to illustrate social search. If you’re looking for a Thai restaurant in San Francisco, for example, you may be more likely to enjoy those already approved by your Facebook friends than to visit those that have the highest Google ranks. But social search doesn’t work for everything. If you want to research, say, medication prescribed by your doctor, you’re unlikely to find many Facebook likes for the best choices. Nor will friends’ likes help students much with their homework. But for specific categories of searches, especially consumer purchase decisions, Weitz says friends’ likes have substantial weight. “It’s much harder to game ‘Likes,’” Sterling says. “Thus they could carry greater trust.”
Beyond beating link spam, your friends’ preferences and recommendations may also provide a better guide to what you, as an individual, really want to find. If, for example, you’re shopping for a new pair of shoes, the most valuable search results may not be the most linked-to pages on the Internet but, rather, what your best friends want to be seen wearing.