Microsoft’s Search Ally: Facebook

Microsoft just added a potent ally in its uphill search battle vs. Google. That comrade in arms is none other than Facebook.

Bing, Microsoft’s fast-growing search engine, will over the next few weeks begin featuring results that incorporate information from the social-networking behemoth. Data will include what users’ friends have indicated they “like” via Facebook. The new product is called Liked Results.

For example, users searching for a particular movie will see results indicating which of their friends like or dislike that film. Similarly, folks searching for a restaurant in a particular neighborhood would see a list of area eateries that friends have listed on their Facebook profiles — along with Bing’s general search results. Bing will also surface relevant articles from the Web that users’ friends have liked and shared via Facebook.

“This will profoundly change the way we use search,” said Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s svp, online audience business, during a press event held on Wednesday at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Campus.

According to Microsoft executives, search to date has relied primarily on technology and algorithms to provide relevant results. Now, Bing searches will incorporate human guidance, albeit in an automated fashion.

“Search was built on a concept of these signals that told engines what was … the most likely piece of information you wanted based on the words you entered,” wrote Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s svp, online services division in a blog post. “But the signals that engines have come to rely on to help you find what you’re looking for are not really representative of those human connections and the role they play in making decisions in real life. So we asked ourselves: What if we could make your friend’s opinions visible to you in a simple way when you’re searching?”

To further enhance security and user comfort, searchers will be notified about Liked Results prior to using Bing—and they will have the opportunity to disable the feature.

The new Facebook-driven search results will roll out over the next few weeks on Bing in the U.S. only. The company is almost sure to receive criticism from privacy groups and absorb some consumer outrage (among 500 million registered Facebook users, it’s hard for the site to do anything without receiving complaints).

Perhaps anticipating criticism, during the press event Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized that only information users make public would be used to enhance their search results on Bing. (And Bing will not share users’ search queries with Facebook.)

“If you’ve decided you don’t want your music interests to be public, Bing won’t have access to them,” he said. “If you’ve decided you want your music interests to be public, Bing will have access to them. It’s all public information.”

However, while Facebook users willingly post all sorts of personal information publicly, they haven’t necessarily signed on to have such data appear in search results.

Yet, Facebook has already endured numerous dustups with its user base over issues of privacy and control. It has successfully weathered those so far. That could of course change were the government to get involved. During a keynote interview at the Social Media Strategies conference in New York on Wednesday, David Kirkpatrick, author of the book The Facebook Effect, listed potential government regulation over monetization and privacy concerns as Facebook’s biggest challenge going forward.

Regardless of how this plays out for Facebook, Wednesday’s announcement can only be seen as a victory for Microsoft. Its fledgling search property now offers a function that Google currently does not. Plus, the company is able to bask in the glow of Facebook, which continues to rise in prominence among users and advertisers.

Besides Liked Results, Microsoft and Facebook have also partnered to make it easier for users to find people — particularly old friends on Bing. Via the new Facebook Profile Search tool, users’ Facebook friend circles will be factored in when they search for people on Bing. They’ll also be able to message folks or add them as Facebook friends.