Microsoft’s Bing: Favorite Ally for Social Networks Scared of Google

5/10/12Follow @curtwoodward

With its latest attempt to make a dent in Web search market, Microsoft is once again showing its true value in the social networking age: a safe place to turn for other tech companies wary of Google.

On Thursday, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFTdetailed upcoming changes to its Bing search engine, which holds a small slice of the search market compared to Google’s roughly two-thirds share. For users, the changes will mean a less cluttered page that splits results into three columns.

The main space is still for traditional search results. To its right will be a smaller column, called “snapshot,” that can pull together different parts of the Web that might be related. Search for a restaurant in your neighborhood, for example, and the snapshot might show a map of possible locations and a way to make reservations.

The third column, called “sidebar,” is by far the most significant. It’s meant to blend a user’s social networking presences with their Web searches, keeping people on the Bing page rather than skipping between browser windows.

So, in that hypothetical restaurant search, a user might see a list of the nearby restaurants that their Facebook friends have publicly “liked.” They also could see suggestions about which of their Twitter connections might be a good source for restaurant tips.

And, in a clever integration, a searcher can actually quiz their social feeds for more information right from the Bing page—provided they’ve connected it to their Facebook account.

This feature doesn’t appear to work with Twitter yet—it sounds like users will get sent to the standalone Twitter site if they want to ping their contacts for more information. But Microsoft officials hinted that more robust integrations with social networks of all kinds are on the way, including the professional profile site LinkedIn and the experimental question-and-answer site Quora.

Qi Lu, president of Microsoft’s online services division, also made clear that Bing’s new features would connect with Google Plus, the social-networking service that search leader Google has been trying furiously to grow since its release last year.

Google’s attempts to catch up in the social networking world have come under criticism from rivals, who say Google is over-emphasizing its own Plus pages in search results in an attempt to gain market share. Google, in turn, has said that Facebook and Twitter are not giving it full access to all of the data those services collect.

On Thursday, Microsoft officials were keen to deliver the message that their service wouldn’t play favorites, even pulling up results from a Google Plus page during a demonstration.

“We’re not going to pass judgment on who is a good person or a bad person” based on which social service they use, Bing vice president Derrick Connell said. “We’re going to let users pick.”

Microsoft has struggled mightily to gain a foothold in online products, despite early Web successes like the Hotmail e-mail service, losing billions of dollars over the years trying to develop a Google competitor.

Microsoft also made an early investment in Facebook, which has been followed by several examples of the two companies working closely, including Bing getting favored placement in Facebook’s pages, special access to social data from Facebook, and a patent deal.

That’s what makes this Bing update compelling. From a design standpoint, the changes aren’t terribly impressive—three columns instead of one? From a company that has the lauded and innovative “Metro” tiled interface in its back pocket? It’s a very safe, minor tweak.

But in the all-out competition for the future of information flow on the Web, the message is clear. Microsoft is the older cousin across town who can help even out the odds in a streetfight.

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

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