Bing Moves Strongly into Mobile, Social Space

Microsoft may finally be getting the message that it’s going to take something special to make the Bing search engine stand out. Their latest strategy is designed to appeal to those who use their mobile devices as a lifeline for searching, socializing, and entertainment.

If you use an iPhone, you might or might not be aware that Bing offers a version of its search engine specifically for mobile devices, namely Bing for Mobile. And if you’re fond of Google, you may not see any particular reason to use it. But Microsoft just gave it a new ability that might make you change your mind: auto app discovery.

The way it works is fairly simple: do a normal web search with Bing for Mobile, and it returns mobile applications. You don’t need to know the name of the application, or even that an application exists that’s relevant to your query. A search for “Thor 3D,” for example, can turn up an app for IMDb Movies & TV; a search for “Hotels in Seattle” shows the TripAssist by Expedia app. Each of these included a link in the search results to download the app for free. Apps that cost mention the price in the download link.

Naturally, you can also use Bing for Mobile to find an app by using the app’s name or some other criteria. So “Download Fruit Ninja” would turn up that specific app, while “News Apps” would turn up applications from CNN and other news agencies.

Not only can Bing for Mobile help you find apps, it can launch some applications directly from the search results – if the app is already installed on your phone. As the company explains in a blog post, “If an App is not installed on your phone, when you click on the download link Bing takes you to download the app from the iTunes App Store. If the App is already installed and the developer has enabled the launch functionality, then it will launch automatically.” So far, more than 50 applications have that capability, including Yelp, Facebook, and IMDb.

Some of these apps take that automatic launch capability to the next level. For instance, if you’ve just searched for “Thor 3D” and have the IMDb app installed on your phone, clicking the download link on Bing’s search result for the app doesn’t just launch the app; it takes you directly to the app’s results for “Thor 3D.” That saves you some valuable clicks, which is a worthwhile consideration when so many mobile interfaces make data entry a pain.

In another blog entry, Microsoft announced a number of updates to Bing for Mobile that make it easier to use with social sites and the kinds of applications users find helpful to access on the go. “Today’s updates make it easier to share on Facebook, access news, see local listings and directions in one view, reference past searches and view trending topics,” the company explained.

The Share on Facebook feature, only available on iOS devices at the moment, lets you share searches you’ve done through Bing with your Facebook friends. So you could, for example, look up a restaurant on Bing, quickly post your find to Facebook, and ask your friends if their food is any good. Greg Sterling on Search Engine Land noted that more “cynical” users could utilize this feature to generate “likes” for a specific page.    

As for news access, users can go to the Bing for Mobile home page and use the “carousel” feature to quickly flip through headlines. Only US users can access this feature. Otherwise, little else has changed.

So what’s new with maps and lists? This update is particularly useful if you want to be able to see both where you’re going and what businesses are in that area in addition to the one you’re trying to reach. The Maps/List Split View gives users both map-based directions and business listing in a single, split view, with the map at the top and the listings at the bottom. As you click on businesses in the list, the map dynamically updates to show you the one you’ve highlighted. This view works for driving, transit, and walking directions, though it is reportedly not yet available in the Bing iPhone app.            

The Search History/Trending Topics feature lets you quickly reference past searches that you’ve performed – very handy if you’re always forgetting where that cool indie book store or local yarn shop is located. Trending Topics, meanwhile, shows you which searches are currently most popular on Bing. Note that this feature is only available in the US. 

That doesn’t mean that non-US users are totally out in the cold. Bing for Mobile is now available in the UK, with “a redesigned homepage, enhanced local listings, autosuggest, image search, and driving and walking directions (and real-time transit in London),” according to Microsoft.

If you’d like to experience these updates yourself, you’ll need a device that supports HTML5 capable browsers. This include iPhone, Android and RIM devices, though ironically, not Windows Phone yet. It’s pretty clear from this set of updates that Microsoft is aiming Bing squarely at the mobile, searching-and-planning-and-socializing-on-the-go market. It’s a smart move; this market will only grow as social media and mobile device use become embedded in our culture, particularly among the younger set.

In short, Microsoft is trying to position itself outside its normal target audience – and is trying to prove itself useful and perhaps even hip to that group. This might not fit well with the company’s image; remember, its bread and butter still comes from its top position as an operating system and software supplier for businesses. The key factor, however, won’t be its reputation; it will be how well the new features work. After all, nobody has patience for a blue screen of death when they’re on the go. 

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