Bing gets social, but it's too quiet in here

Bing gets Facebook social smarts and a great design to find people related to users' searches, but the new engine yields surprisingly sparse social results.

Want some social in your search? But not too much? The Bing-Facebook integration announced two weeks ago went live for everyone last night. The new Bing incorporates social signals into search results in both subtle and overt ways. Overall, the design works very well. The content? Not quite there.

Bing social search results are shown here alongside normal search results. The ads, typically displayed between the two, have been removed for clarity. Illustration/CNET

The big advantage of the Bing approach to socially enabled search is that the fundamental search experience appears little changed. Social is mostly in a sidebar. You still get your search results in the main column. Google Plus Your World, in contrast, puts social search results in the main column, but only when you ask. It's an extra step and has not been a critical success.

When you search in the new social Bing, the most obvious change is that new sidebar showing social results. But instead of showing text snippets from pages your friends have seen or liked, it highlights instead the people who you know (or follow) who might have knowledge about the topic you're interested in.

So if you're searching for "Audi," you'll get your usual search results (including ads) in the main search column. If any of your Facebook friends have "liked" a link that's in your search results, a very subtle, gray thumbs-up icon appears next to the link.

Off to the right, in the social zone, you'll see a few new clumps of info. Under a "Friends who might know" heading, you'll see a list of Facebook friends with Audi-related activity (photos tagged as Audi or likes related to Audi). You may, under that heading, get a "People who know" column listing people who have tweeted about the topic, who have your search query in their Twitter bio, or who have posted on the topic on another site.

What Bing is trying to do with this design is help you find people you might want to engage with (hello, Facebook partnership), rather than just blasting you with search results, even if those results are informed by your friends' activities, which is what Google does.

So part of the new Bing experience is a tool for building a query about a topic that goes specifically to people you select in your "Friends who might know" list. It's short work to create a question about a topic, select friends who know about it to receive the question on Facebook, and add some related links to the query from the main search results. I'm not sure people will use this feature, but those inclined to ask their Facebook friends questions to further research they're starting in a Bing query might find this feature useful and fun. If you're about to make a big purchase or go on vacation, this is useful. It would be nice if when people answered your query there would be some indication of that in your "Activity" list in the sidebar, though. There isn't.

Unfortunately, in too many queries I tried, Bing came up empty on the social front or simply showed me links to photos that friends had taken. In only a few queries did it return deeper info or likes. Results depend on your Facebook social connections, but I have a good number of Facebook friends and expected more.

Google Plus Your World, on the same queries I tried, gave me more results. It listed tons of links my friends had flagged on almost every query I threw at it. There was, in fact, too much to sort through from Google and a lot of the results were not what I wanted. So Google doesn't get social search just right, either. Its failings are just different: Too much undifferentiated content, compared to what appears on Bing to be overly cautious result sets. Google doesn't make it as easy to connect with people over topics as Bing does, either.

I found the content comparison surprising considering how many social signals Facebook picks up from all the liking that people are doing across the Web. I expect that as this socially enabled version of Bing matures, Microsoft (and Facebook) will figure out a way to layer in more and better content. But I expected a more useful offering for a major update to social search from a partnership between tech giants Microsoft and Facebook.

 

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