Computers

New Bing search uses social media

CORRESPONDENTMay 21, 2012 

How to get the most out of the world’s largest social network?

Buying shares in Facebook may or may not be the solution, depending on your thoughts on its initial public offering price. But leveraging social connections for searching is a suddenly hot idea, experimented with by both Google and Microsoft. I’ve voiced misgivings about watering down search tools with social media before, but the latest Microsoft work on Bing is delivering a surprisingly interesting product, and I think it’s pointing to a larger change in how we use networked information.

An Internet search used to involve no more than locating specific Web pages and returning a set of links, allowing the algorithm-writing geniuses at companies like Google to figure out how to index and rank pages for the most efficient returns. Bing’s new approach is now being tested and will be rolled out to all users as we get into summer, but you can request access to it at www.bing.com/new. It asks a broader question of search strategies. What are you trying to accomplish, and can the answer take place not on a separate page but on the search site itself? Moreover, can your own network of social connections offer up an even faster answer?

User control

The newly tooled Bing goes about examining the idea by setting up three columns rather than a single list of search results. The usual results do appear on the left side of the screen, but on the right appears an “app” that, if you give Bing permission, will display who among your friends on Facebook might have knowledge about the subject in question. If you’re in Raleigh and want to learn how to fly, for example, you’ll get results for flight schools in the area on the left, and the names of any Facebook contacts who have shown by their posts and activity that they have a similar interest on the right. Thus a friend may have mentioned on Facebook last year that his brother was taking flight lessons from a company somewhere in North Carolina.

Now this can be more or less useful depending on what you’re searching for, but imagine planning a trip with the turbo-charged Bing, pulling up not only background information on your itinerary, but social connections with people on Facebook who have been in the same place recently. You can then connect directly with those people from Bing, asking any question you choose. I like that all this is entirely under user control – you don’t have to make the Facebook connection at all – and also that those who do want to explore “social” answers can go beyond their Facebook contacts with Bing, which can search many other social media sites.

Beyond indexing

A third column also appears on the main page, one that Microsoft calls Snapshot. Here, Bing serves up information and services about your search that lets you take specific actions. Your trip to Acapulco, Mexico, might involve a search for hotel rooms there that Snapshot will handle by offering you reviews and reservation options. You can see that the overall pattern is to expand traditional Net search by folding in the kind of questions you might ask of your own circle of friends, and pushing those questions out to social media users you have connected with.

Will the new Bing thrive? My guess is that we’ll see a lot of changes to the three-column interface, which on first blush seems too crowded and gimmicky for my taste. But I think Microsoft is on to something by moving beyond the indexing of pure text and getting into the linkages between information and the actual objects it describes.

Google, Apple and Facebook itself are reportedly compiling the same kind of databases, helping the vendor to build apps that allow you to do things directly from the search page.

Coupled with our natural reliance on friendship and acquaintance, such databases may make searches faster and more targeted.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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