In the real world, when folks decide where to eat, what to buy, which movie to go see and so on, they frequently seek the recommendations of friends and so-called experts. Three years after launching its "Decision Engine," Microsoft is overhauling Bing to make its online search engine more social. Though it's taking a different path, Bing's strategy resembles that taken by rival Google, still the dominant player in search.
As part of the new Bing, people you know, and in some cases, strangers, are more prominently featured in the decision-making mix that includes Facebook and other networks.
I generally applaud Microsoft's approach. But not everything in this still-early-stage preview is working smoothly . For one thing, I ran into trouble getting all the new Bing features to show up on the Mac's Safari Web browser (which Microsoft says is related to the version I've been testing and will be fixed). For another, I want to see more users actually have access to the revamped Bing to more fully unleash its potential.
You can check out the changes for yourself at Bing.com/new, but consumers must still wait a few weeks for all the latest features to be made available.
When you type in your actual search query, you're exposed to Bing's clean new three-column design interface that takes in information from traditional Web pages, enthusiasts, bloggers and yes, your friends.
The left panel is where you'll find the kind of results you've come to expect from a major search engine such as Bing or Google. When I typed in "sushi new york city," I got a typical list of results.
Things start to look different in the center column, the space reserved for the "snapshot," where Bing pulls in relevant contextual resources from across the Web. In the sushi example, a map appeared in the snapshot with locations for some of the restaurants listed in the left column (a number appears next to the restaurants whose locations are pinpointed on the map.)
When I specifically searched the name of one popular restaurant, Nobu, the center snapshot column displayed star ratings and links to reviews from Citysearch, Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor. There was a map here, too, with directions or a street view. The center column also listed Nobu's hours of operation, and included a photo you could click to "step inside" for a tour. A handy link lets you make a reservation through OpenTable.
In a search on "The Avengers," the snapshot included the movie trailer, film length, parental rating, plot synopsis, director and cast, as well as links to reviews from Moviefone, Rotten Tomatoes and Fandango.
Snapshot doesn't fire up for every search, which makes sense. I didn't love that ad-sponsored results otherwise filled the space.
The third column on the right reveals the social "sidebar," probably the most significant addition to Bing due to its heavy reliance on people. Depending on the query, you'll see some combination of the following: "Friends who might know," your pals on Facebook who might lend some expertise because of where they live; photos they may have posted; or what they "liked" on Facebook. You may see a "People who know" section, featuring presumed experts and influencers.
Because not a lot of people have access to the new Bing, Facebook friends who showed up in the sidebar weren't necessarily the best ones to help me find sushi. Hovering over one friend revealed his "like" of an Italian eatery, but nothing remotely Asian. Moreover, my sushi search didn't uncover experts, unlike a "seafood Boston" query, which listed local bloggers and foodies.
Meanwhile, a search on "Bill Gates" listed Gates himself in the "People who know" section. Hovering over his name led me to his latest tweets.
Bing should theoretically improve as it gains users and Microsoft adds new partners. The company says you might see results from friends in Quora, Foursquare, LinkedIn, even Google+.
Earlier this year, Google unveiled its own social search efforts through something called "Search, plus Your World," which incorporates posts and pictures from friends on Google+ and places them in the midst of search results. Its reception was mixed. Microsoft through the sidebar prefers keeping social connections separate.
From within the Bing sidebar, you can post questions to Facebook friends or respond to questions from others, and see responses in an "Activity feed" or on Facebook itself, as when I asked for recommendations of trendy restaurants I could get into on short notice.
In any query, of course, the more relevant the search information, the better. So much the better if that relevant info comes from a friend or social connection.
The bottom line
Pro. New design incorporates "social search" through Facebook and others.
Con. Still in preview mode. I had trouble getting it to work on Mac; not all features are ready yet.