Microsoft’s Bing has been gradually gaining traction in the search space by excelling at something Google doesn't own: social search. For example Bing users can link their Facebook accounts in order to get results based on social connections (while Google and Twitter have famously quarrelled over including tweets within Google search queries).
Today Bing took social search a step further with a design overhaul that will roll out to U.S. users over the coming weeks which splits the results page into three columns, the most noteworthy of which being a social-heavy sidebar.
Instead of just surfacing results based on social signals such as "likes" or tweets, the social sidebar—which will run along the results page’s right rail—makes social search an active experience. Users can post questions through the sidebar that their Facebook friends might be able to answer, and Bing will recommend who of a user’s Facebook friends might be of most help based on their likes, Facebook profile information and shared photos. Also populating the sidebar will be real-time posts and queries from a user’s Facebook friends that can be then be answered, liked or commented on.
“For the first time we’ve enabled information to flow from search to social networks,” Harry Shum, corporate vp of core search development at Microsoft, said during the Bing Search Summit today.
The sidebar can also connect with other social networks like Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Quora, Foursquare and Blogger to identify people who might be able to answer a query. Google has made a big push  to link its Google+ social network with search, but Bing’s Google+ integration doesn’t seem so complex as to undermine Google’s efforts. When a Google+ profile pops up as someone who can answer a query, the user clicks through to that Google+ profile rather than solicit questions within the sidebar.
As part of the redesign, Bing is also adding a column called “snapshot” that will be sandwiched between the standard results listings on the left-hand side and the social sidebar and will display results information such as mapped locations, restaurant reservations and reviews. Bing has partnered with Yelp, OpenTable and Fansnap, among others, to populate snapshot results.
Given the design overhaul, an obvious question for brands is what happens to the ads that have historically run along the right side of search results? According to Microsoft, the answer is nothing—yet.
“In the future, as we look at both the snapshot and the sidebar, we will start to experiment with new ad formats and new ad models for both of those,” Derrick Connel, corporate vp of search program management at Microsoft, said during the Bing Search Summit.
The redesign has removed the results page’s left rail, but all the features it housed have been integrated throughout the search engine, said Connel. Users can access their search histories through a link that will appear in the search box as users type their queries. Related search suggestions will be pulled into the results list, and search filters have moved to the top of the page.
The Bing mobile design won’t feature a three-column layout, but at the bottom of the mobile results page users will find a link to a mobile version of the social sidebar, Connel said.