Bing Chief Stefan Weitz on Facebook in Search: Humans Crave Other Humans

11/2/11Follow @curtwoodward

Updated 11:30 am 11/3 with slides
Sorry, experts: Information consumers don’t particularly care about all your highfalutin’ degrees and special titles. For a surprisingly large swath of online queries, friends and other real-world users are the key sources of opinions, says Stefan Weitz, Microsoft’s director of search.

“People don’t know who to trust. They don’t know who experts are. I can claim to be an expert in search, but you have to believe me,” Weitz said Wednesday in a presentation at the first Seattle Interactive Conference.

Like a true data geek, Weitz had a truckload of statistics, research, charts, and graphs to illustrate the importance of social signals in influencing user behavior online. But the short version is summed up well by this quote: “Humans crave other humans inside of search.”

There is an exception to the no-experts finding—when it comes to technical problems, people online actually want to see expert opinions, Weitz says.

But for every other example of some very common queries that Microsoft studied, the opinions of friends or other regular users were vastly preferred. Here’s that key slide from the presentation, and the rest is embedded below via Slideshare:

That’s significant for Microsoft, of course, because of the company’s deal with Facebook that gives Bing access to public Facebook data. Bing now incorporates that information into its search results.

“The bottom line is people are using social networks, in this case Facebook is the dominant one, to pose questions, to get opinions from people they know,” he said. “And in case you didn’t know, Bing has a relationship with Facebook.”

It’s an interesting relationship. Facebook hasn’t gone full-force into Web search, instead relying on its Bing partnership. Some who study the sector, though, say Facebook will eventually do search itself—potentially leaving Microsoft behind.

That would be a big letdown for Bing, which is growing in share of the search market (and powers search for poor old Yahoo) but is still well behind the search market leader, Google.

For his part, Weitz said the tracking of quality social signals will become even more important over time, as the amount of information online and the volume of search traffic increases, Weitz said.

For instance, search in general still expects people to put the right combination of keywords into the search box when they’re looking for something they don’t know anything about. “If you think about that, it’s chaos,” he said.

And while search gurus are trying to figure out how to make algorithms better at answering questions, Bing finds that users are going to their social graph when they want to ask a question and get an opinion.

If your garden-variety Internet user gets entrenched in that kind of split—social networks to answer questions and search to gather raw data—you can see how hard it might be for straight-up search tools to break Facebook’s hold and truly catalog all the valuable information out there.

“The cold math that we have used for 15 years now to help refine results to your particular keyword is not something which was sustainable long-term,” Weitz said. “You need that emotional connection to actually help you rationalize your way through the decision you have to make.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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