Microsoft made a big push Thursday in its race to catch up with search king Google when the company unveiled a new design for its Bing search engine that incorporates activities from a user's social networks including Facebook and Twitter.
The company is calling this update "the most significant since Microsoft launched Bing three years ago."
The new search results page -- rolling out over the next few weeks -- will be divided into three columns.
The column on the left displays standard search results. The middle column displays tasks associated with the search (for instance, pulling up a map and reviews of a restaurant or the option to make a restaurant reservation if you searched for local restaurants).
The column on the right -- which Microsoft is dubbing the "social sidebar" -- shows actions your friends have taken related to the topic you queried: liking a particular restaurant, for instance, or offering an opinion on best restaurants in the city. And users can post questions and friends can respond from either Facebook or Bing. The social sidebar will also list experts and enthusiasts in areas related to the search topic.
The changes are part of a move Microsoft has been making recently to incorporate more "social search," where a user's social network, such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, play a more prominent role in search results.
"Increasingly, the Web is about much more than simply finding information by navigating a topically organized graph of links," Qi Lu, president of Microsoft's Online Services division, said in an official statement. "We're evolving search in a way that recognizes new user paradigms like the growth of the social graph, and will empower people with the broad knowledge of the Web alongside the help of their friends."
Both Microsoft and competitor Google have made big moves in social search in recent years.
Earlier this year, Google unveiled "Search, Plus Your World," which includes in the list of search results actions that your friends have taken related to the search topic. Basically, it's like getting Bing's "social sidebar" results mixed in with the results of your standard search -- but with only the people in your Google+ circles in the mix.
That's because Google doesn't have the relationships in place with companies like Facebook. In 2010, Microsoft announced a strategic partnership with Facebook to build social search in Bing. That has resulted in Bing features such as an indication when websites that come up in search results are "liked" by Facebook friends, and the ability to link websites related to them in Bing search results.
"Bing just pulled half a car length ahead in the race," said Oren Etzioni, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington. "As far as I know, Google doesn't have comparable capability to this level.
"I think," Etzioni said, that Bing "is showing that it's something that's an important differentiator."
That's important because Bing has been striving to make a case for why people should use it instead of Google. Though Bing has slowly made inroads into Google's search dominance, it still accounted only for some 15 percent of U.S. searches in March, according to research firm comScore. Google had 66 percent.
Though both companies are still trying to figure out the best way to implement social search, their different approaches are becoming apparent.
"Bing has decided to keep social search somewhat segregated," Danny Sullivan, editor of the online news site Search Engine Land, said, referring to Bing's separate "social sidebar" column for social search results. "Google is mixing them together."
Bing is basically saying it has a social search feature and "if you like it, it's in this separate area," Sullivan said. "If you don't, you don't have to pay too much attention. I like the cleanness."
But, he added, "Having said that, there are times when I think Google's mixed-up integration might work better. It's too early to tell which approach goes forward."
Early adopters can sign up to be among the first to try the new format at www.bing.com/new.
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