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Bing Gets Friendlier with Facebook

New features will push the Microsoft search engine ahead of Google in the race to make search more social.

Starting tomorrow, recommendations from your Facebook friends will become a regular part of Web search results, at least if you use Microsoft’s Bing search engine. A slew of new Bing features will use Facebook data to make its results more personalized, and to create opportunities to discuss what you are searching for with friends.

Search me: Bing will let users ask their Facebook friends for shopping advice through its search results.

“All the stuff we’ve deployed previously for Web search doesn’t acknowledge the human, social side of our users,” says Stefan Weitz, director of Bing search. “We were looking at it like engineers, and built a purely logic-based experience,” Weitz says. Web search should support people’s instincts to consult and discuss things with other people. A survey of Bing users found that 90 percent would talk with a friend before they acted on any information they found when searching online for product information, he says.

The new features will push Bing ahead of Google in the race to make search more social. Last month, Google launched +1, its own close analogue of the Like button, with the intention of using it to shape search results. However, +1 is off to a slow start, because it is not hitched to a large social network, giving users little motivation to use it.

Bing’s new features primarily use data that comes from the clicks on Facebook’s Like buttons. These buttons appear on sites across the Web. The Like button started as a low-cost way to communicate recommendations with friends online, but in recent years, it’s been adapted by Facebook to drive the ambitious “open graph” project, whose goal is to intertwine Facebooks network of connections with the Web.

Bing has been using data on the likes of users’ friends in its results since October, adding a box featuring relevant links liked by Facebook friends to some search results. Now these likes will have a much more visible effect on search results. The profile pictures of friends will appear next to search results that they have liked. Those likes will also be used to promote pages that otherwise may not have appeared on the first page of results.

For some searches, Bing will also use likes from people who aren’t your Facebook friends to recommend popular content. “This is us tapping into latent signals that exist across the Web, but haven’t been used for search before,” says Weitz.

Other new features are intended to make search into a communication tool that can connect you with existing Facebook contacts or new ones. Searching for people—even those you are not linked with directly—may now return a short bio taken from Facebook profiles. This could include information like the person’s location, school, and employer.

When a user searches for a city, Bing will highlight friends that Facebook says are located nearby. This presumably would allow you to connect with people who might have recommendations about places to stay or visit, or friends you might want to inform about your visit.

Bing’s product search engine will also include new Facebook features. It will be possible to post a short list of possible purchases to your Facebook wall, to encourage friends to help you choose. “This turns search into a conversation, and makes it a less passive experience,” says Weitz.

Bing’s new features can only access information if your Facebook privacy settings will allow it.

Research on neurobiology and social psychology helped guide Bing’s new direction, says Weitz, who claims the approach will help make decision making easier. Traditional Web search triggers an unhelpful phenomenon known as “decision quicksand,” says Weitz. The term describes how people come to think of decisions as more important than they really are because of the complexity of weighing all the evidence. “When you use traditional Web search, your brain thinks everything is really important because there are half a million results you are told are relevant and have to deal with,” says Weitz. “What we’re doing now is using social signals to simplify that so your brain isn’t tricked.”

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