In what's shaping up to be a drawn-out battle to develop a social-search engine that consumers love, Bing has unsheathed a critical weapon: Facebook.
Microsoft's search engine unveiled today what it's calling the first major update since Bing launched three years ago. While the update includes tweaks to the search algorithm and the inclusion of "entity" search results -- like a photo, map and rate notification in a hotel search -- the most noteworthy addition is a social "sidebar" on the right side of the screen that will pull in relevant posts from a user's Facebook friends to complement a search.
For example, a search for "Seattle restaurants" might pull up Facebook friends who have "liked" dining establishments in the metro area under a header that reads "Friends Who Might Know." Bing users can also post comments or queries in the sidebar interface that will automatically be published to their Facebook page (provided they're signed into Facebook) and could hypothetically flag their Seattle-based friends in posts seeking advice on where to go for dinner.
This deep integration with Facebook isn't the first time the two have collaborated, and Bing has been adding social recommendations powered by Facebook to its search results for the past year. But it's a sure sign that Microsoft -- which bought a 1.6% stake in Facebook for $240 million in 2007 -- will lean on a company it's heavily invested in to improve on the social-search product Google introduced in January. "Search Plus Your World" pulls up Google+ content deemed relevant to signed-in Google users and has gotten a tepid reception.
"The meaningfulness of this from the social perspective is that the Facebook social graph is a far more useful and mature graph than anything Google's been able to put together," said Kevin Lee, CEO of search-marketing firm Didit.
Mr. Lee also observed that Bing's sidebar product also resembles the Facebook "ticker," which is a constantly updating score of actions taken by friends. "It might resonate to the extent of making people prefer Bing," he said.
Bing's sidebar product also comprises a smaller-scale integration with Twitter and with Google+. The tool includes a "People Who Know" header that pulls in social "influencers" Bing's algorithm finds relevant to the query. It might link to a Twitter feed or a Google+ account.Qi Lu, Microsoft's president-online services division, said the ultimate goal is to pull in data from a variety of social streams, including LinkedIn and Quora.
During a live webcast today introducing the update, Mr. Lu made a not-so-subtle dig at Google's "Search Plus Your World," which has come under fire for displaying relevant content only from Google+ and ignoring the rest of the social web.
"We want to design search in a way that 's truly inclusive and natural," Mr. Lu said.
The Bing update will be rolled out over the next few weeks and will be broadly available in the U.S. by early June, according to Microsoft.