Maybe I just need better friends, but I can’t shake the feeling that “social search” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
For the uninitiated, that’s the trend among search engines toward including results from Facebook contacts, Twitter followees and other digital buddies among the traditional blue links. Given my skepticism, you’d think I wouldn’t like the new social-centric version of Microsoft (MSFT)’s Bing, the perpetual No. 2 to Google.
That’s not the case. In making social-search results more prominent, Bing has at the same time reorganized its screen layout to make them easier to ignore when they aren’t relevant. The result is a cleaner, calmer interface that lets users focus more specifically on finding the online information they need.
Some searches naturally invite others’ opinions. What are the best Chinese restaurants on the San Francisco Peninsula? Is “The Avengers” worth seeing in 3D?
For many others queries, though, the social component is useless. If I want to know the current student enrollment at Yale University, it doesn’t really matter that four of my Facebook (FB) friends studied there, and another lists it as a “Like.”
Until now, Bing displayed that kind of information amid its main results in the form of a row of tiny Facebook profile pictures. The thumbnail photos were so small they were unrecognizable, and the social-search components, along with other extraneous material jammed in, resulting in more scrolling.
In the new layout, the screen is broken into three components. The left-hand column, the widest, is a clean list of relevant blue links -- the kind of thing Google used to be known for before it began salting its results with stuff like the “Search, plus Your World” integration with its Google (GOOG)+ social network.
If you’ve signed in to Bing with your Facebook ID, a gray thumbs-up icon appears next to any link endorsed by a friend. Hovering over the icon opens a bubble identifying who it is. Otherwise, the results are mercifully clear of clutter.
Next to the main results, a column Microsoft calls Snapshot includes not only the expected text-based ads and related searches, but also relevant information that changes as you hover over an entry with your mouse.
When I searched for Manhattan hotels, for instance, the Snapshot displayed a map locating the top hits. When I hovered next to the entry for the Carlyle, the Snapshot displayed reviews from TripAdvisor and links to let me check room rates and availability.
The biggest change, though, is the new third column, a gray bar running down the right-hand side of the screen. It’s called the Sidebar and it’s all about social.
When you enter a query, the Sidebar immediately suggests contacts under the heading “Friends Who Might Know.” For now, these results are limited to your Facebook friends, but Microsoft says other social networks, such as LinkedIn, Quora and Foursquare, will be added over time. Clicking on any name opens a window allowing you to post an inquiry directly to the friend’s Facebook wall.
For some searches, the Sidebar will also suggest people outside your own networks -- bloggers, Tweeters and others --who might be authoritative sources. When I entered “Ashton Kutcher,” for instance, Bing displayed a link to the actor’s Twitter account.
Easy to Hide
Perhaps the best thing about the Sidebar is that it’s easy to hide. One click collapses it into a thin, gray, non-distracting band; another click slides it back out to its full width, for those times when you may be looking for advice along with your information.
As for the relevance of that advice, a week of using the new Bing suggests that the social component is still very much a work in progress.
When I searched for “Palo Alto lunch spots,” Bing not only gave me the expected Yelp links but also suggested two “Friends Who Might Know:” Julia, who works on the nearby Stanford University campus, and Felicity, who lives in neighboring Portola Valley.
Curiously, searching more specifically for “Palo Alto sandwiches” added a third possible resource: Holly, who lives in town but whose name was missing from the first search. Perhaps Holly is a sandwich specialist; I’ll ask next time I see her.
On the Spot
And when I typed in “alternatives to Google,” Bing suggested a couple of my Facebook friends who actually work at Google. I decided not to put them on the spot by asking for recommendations.
Some Bing users already see the new layout and features when they log in. Microsoft says everyone accessing the site from a computer’s Web browser will get the new look within the next few weeks; in the meantime, a preview is available at bing.com/new. Users of Apple (AAPL)’s iPads and other tablets will get the new experience at a later date.
Over time, I expect Bing to grow smarter about finding useful information for me from my social network. For now, at least, I’m grateful that it also knows how to get out of my way.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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