Earlier this week, Microsoft’s search engine Bing significantly deepened its Instant Personalization integration with Facebook. It launched several new social features for its web search, shopping, travel, and toolbar products; and it began triggering the display of social content much more frequently.
By improving result quality with both the data of a user’s friends and the Facebook user base at large, Bing is positioning itself as the search engine of choice for when people need social reassurance to make a decision.
We sat down with the Director of Bing, Stefan Weitz to ask him a few questions about the motives behind the update. We’ll follow that with an in-depth look at the product changes.
Q&A on Social as the Future of Ecommerce Search
Inside Facebook: Why is Bing pushing to get social integrations so deep into decision-based search?
Stefan Weitz, Director of Bing: Decision search is moving from exploration to active conversation because 80% of people delay making a purchase online until they can talk to a friend.
Core search stuff has been taken care of by intelligent organization. But how do people sort through all the links and make a decision? You do all the research, but at the last minute you walk away from the purchase process because you’re not convinced until you get a social recommendation.
When you want to tap into that info you have to go to a bunch of different places. Whether it’s just Facebook that solves that problem, or if it’s Quora and other sites, behavior is already moving in that direction (of seeking advice online rather than offline). But no one does a good job of pulling it all together into search.
IF: What has changed that’s made this possible but also necessary?
SW: Stuff that was previosuly in your brain is now in a format that machines can read. Friend connections are a new way of thinking about ranking search.
Meanwhile, humans are creating 5 billion gigabytes of data every two days, and machines are losing their ability to categorize it all. How can PageRank handle a Yfrog image? It probably doesn’t have a title, or caption, or anything else that could help index it. But if a friend Likes it, that’s important.
IF: Why is the social content appearing more frequently now?
SW: Honestly, it was light before. You didn’t see much of it. Now it’s gone up a ton, you’ll see it a lot more. It triggers more because we have higher coverage [across products]. Its more than just Likes now. We think of people as having characteristics and attributes, not just actions. Now we’re considering what other meta data can we use that people will give us access to so we can continue to personalize search.
Improvements to Bing’s Existing Facebook Integration
Bing began its Facebook integration by indexing Page updates and publicly visible links posted by users in June 2010. In October of that year, it partnered with Facebook to offer Instant Personalization of Bing search results so users could could see Likes by friends of search result objects, and their network connections to Facebook users found through a name search.
However, the search result Likes were displayed very infrequently, so some hardly noticed the change. Microsoft also released the Bing Bar toolbar, which allowed users to view the Facebook news feed and their notification from any tab, but it didn’t offer an easy way to share web pages and links copied into its Facebook publisher weren’t formatted as they are on Facebook.com.
Bing has now fixed these issues and greatly expanded the functionality of its Facebook integration. As Weitz said, social content now appears in search results much more frequently. Meanwhile, the Bing Bar now has a “Universal Like Button” — a one click way to share the currently viewed webpage to the news feed with the same rich story formatting as if one had pasted the link into the Facebook.com publisher.
Search With More Social Content
Along with more frequently showing you Likes by friends of things represented in top search results, Bing now actually personalizes the rank of results based on these Likes. Weitz tells us that “based on the actions of friends, results that would be on page two or three are pulled onto page one.” Even if no friends have Liked a result, in some cases it will display the total number of Facebook users that have Liked it, helping users make decisions about topics outside the expertise of their network.
In one of the most useful new additions to Bing, frequently Liked webpages from within popular websites will appear beside their Like count underneath a result, allowing users to sift through today’s content heavy blogs and community sites. For instance, articles from a news site or recipes from a cooking site that have been Liked by friends or many other users are now much easier to discover.
Related updates from Facebook Pages now appear in general search instead of being isolated in the dedicated “Social” search tab. As Pages become a sort of news ticker and deals distribution platform for many brands, Page updates are becoming valuable content to surface.
Bing Augments People,Travel, and Shopping Search With Friend Profile Characteristics and Sharing Options
While before users could search for people through Bing, the results were no more helpful in finding the right “Bob Smith” than Facebook’s own search engine. Now people search results display profile data visible to the searcher, such as current city, workplace, and education history if its public or is to visible to “friends of friends” and they have a friend in common.
Similarly, Bing Travel searches will display the friends that live or previously lived in a city that’s been searched for. In an innovative use of the ability for owners of Like buttons to publish news feed updates to those that click them, users who Like flight results between two cities will receive feed stories about about deals on those flights. Users can also share Travel Wish Lists with friends. Bing Shopping has also rolled out it’s previously announced shareable product comparisons so users can seek advice from friends.
Where Social Search Can Go From Here
Bing’s latest social additions could make it a sensible tool for people inquiring about things outside their comfort zone. If I don’t know anything about LCD TVs, but want to buy one, Bing could help me discover reputable brands and popular sources of tech hardware reviews, or share the choices I’m comparing with my friends.
There’s still more to do, though. For instance, I might see that one friend Likes one tech hardware review blog, and another friend Likes a different blog. Perhaps Bing or another social search engine could analyze the full set of Likes of those friends, and determine if one is an expert on technology because they’ve Liked several other tech brands or publications. This friend’s Like could then be weighted more heavily or shown more prominently.
There’s also the question of those who really don’t want a social search experience. Now, even if a Bing user doesn’t have a Facebook account they’ll still see anonymized data about the Likes of the general Facebook user base. By providing an option to completely opt out of seeing Facebook data in search results, Bing could continue aggressively integrating social data without alienating those who don’t believe in the wisdom of the crowd.