Weekly Update

Microsoft raises bar for social search

Last week, Microsoft showed off what it called the biggest redesign of its Bing search engine in its three-year history, featuring a results page loaded with social features. The new Bing will roll out to users over the next few weeks. Microsoft seems to have achieved its stated goal to balance social signals and an easy way to ask friends for advice “without compromising the core search experience.” In demos it’s a far deeper and more graceful implementation than Google’s justly criticized “Search plus your world” social personalization scheme.

What it means

Search is still vital for Microsoft. With this release, Microsoft has set the standard for social search. It has fine-tuned social results and presents them in their own sidebar that encourages but doesn’t depend on user interaction. Microsoft says its research shows that 90 percent of people tap into friends or experts before decisions, but it doesn’t bury algorithmic results beneath social data that may not be useful.

Microsoft is taking in data from a broad variety of social media sources including Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Foursquare, LinkedIn and even Google+. Microsoft has licensing agreements with Facebook and Twitter but also uses publicly available “scraped” information and data from social networks’ APIs. Google has alienated Facebook and Twitter to the point where Twitter reportedly blocks Google from using what would be normally public data.

Microsoft enables users to take direct actions based on results in what it calls the Snapshot section of a results page. It looks like Microsoft has been less heavy-handed than Google in promoting its own services, and pulls up info from Yelp, Open Table and others. Likewise, the social pane dispenses with the need to ingest social annotations directly into search results, yet still offers up logical actions with friends or “people who might know.”

Microsoft got social right; Google did not. (Danny Sullivan is skeptical that either has the formula.) No, social media won’t replace search. But Microsoft has a great demonstration of how to incorporates social signals into search. Google’s flubs have so far cost it no market share, and Microsoft’s own slim gains have come mostly at the expense of Yahoo, its partner in search technology. Microsoft still needs to get users to try out Bing, even before it can prove whether social media adds much to the search experience. It’s not clear whether big audience aggregators Yahoo or Facebook, that also uses some Microsoft search technology, will adopt these new conventions. AOL’s still a Google distributor. So it’s going to cost Microsoft a lot of advertising dollars to expose Bing.

Whom it affects

Google. Before Microsoft can gain any awareness, Google should do whatever it takes (i.e., spend liberally) to get its old Twitter license re-done; Facebook may be hopeless. Google should also tone down the promotion of its own products within general search results, and focus on building out vertical search sites. If they’re legitimately competitive, they’ll show up in organic results.

General-purpose search. Yahoo, AOL and Ask could copy or license Microsoft social results. The portals can focus on personalization based on their own extensive user data.

Vertical search. Sites that offer search of specific categories, like Kayak, media companies and retailers can all observe, adopt or license techniques from Microsoft. Social search should remain one facet of results – not the dominant method. That’s because there are no simple rules for when social search works. It’s not a matter of casual versus considered purchases. Friends can make valuable travel and local service provider recommendations, but their advice on medical, financial and entertainment choices may be suspect.

Key takeaway

Bing represents social done well, and it could lead to minor market share gains; but this is hardly the death of Google.

Question of the week

Will social search integration gain Microsoft any market share?