Bing Launches Social Sidebar

When Microsoft cleaned up Bing’s results pages earlier this month, a number of observers wondered if it was trying to imitate an earlier, less cluttered version of Google. In actuality, the software giant was clearing the decks for a new interpretation of social search. Meet the Social Sidebar.

In its blog post on the subject, the Bing team describes this as “the most significant update to Bing since we launched three years ago.” They’ll be phasing it in over the next few weeks. So what can we expect?

Danny Sullivan got a preview of the new features to try out. He noted that the new design featured three columns with Core Search, Snapshot and Sidebar panes. It comes across as a very functional design, and a surprisingly useful way to incorporate the social graph into search.

For example, let’s take a look at the Social Sidebar. It presents as a vertical gray sidebar to the right of your results. You can choose to ignore it or interact with it, as you wish. The Social Sidebar features four main elements, each of which may or may not show up for a particular search depending on how Bing rates their relevance. These elements include Ask Friends; Friends Who Might Know; People Who Know; and Activity Feed.

Say you’re doing a search on the Grand Canyon to plan a vacation. If you’re signed in to Bing, some of your Facebook friends might show up in the sidebar if they’ve liked pages relevant to the Grand Canyon, or if they have shared pictures of that vacation spot. If you hover your mouse over a particular person, you’ll find out why they were suggested.

Now that you know who among your friends might know something to help you, you can send them a question. Next to each of your friends in the Social Sidebar you’ll find a little “face plus” icon. Click that icon, and you’ll get a box that lists your topic. You can now type your question into the box, and even add links from your search. If you click the Post button, the question will go into her Facebook feed. It will only be seen by those who are friends to both of you, however.

You’ll also find an Ask Friends box at the top of the Social Sidebar. That box allows you to ask a question of all of your friends at once. It’s a little like using a search engine with a Facebook enhancement.

The third element, People Who Know, shows up when Bing finds someone with relevant knowledge regardless of whether you know them. For example, when Sullivan searched for Google on Bing, Matt Cutts appeared under the People Who Know list. But wait! Cutts closed his Facebook account back in 2010. How can he show up here? Bing has access to Twitter records as well.

That’s not all. Bing seems set to out-social Google, as “Social suggestions might also come from LinkedIn, Quora, Foursquare, Blogger, and – wait for it – Google Plus,” Sullivan stated. When Google released its update to social search, named Search Plus Your World, back in January, it claimed that it couldn’t include all of those sources because many sites blocked it out. But Bing insists that it’s getting this information from public pages that it crawls already. Is Google playing favorites by offering information only from its own websites? Sullivan offers more information on this in his article, and you can expect it to come out in one way or another during the antitrust investigation of Google.

The final element in Bing’s Social Sidebar is Activity. This area contains a running feed of questions asked by you and those you know, using the Bing-Facebook connection. If you hover over your own questions, you get to see any responses you might have received.

Bing’s new Social Sidebar seems intuitive. It lets you ask questions of people who might have relevant information without significantly altering the search results or damaging your search experience. Indeed, if it’s as intuitive as it appears, it could really enhance search by letting you tap into the knowledge contained within your social network, right when you can make the best use of it. With a number of users currently finding little difference between Google and Bing as far as the relevancy of their results, perhaps Google should start worrying. 

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