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.
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.