On Monday, Microsoft added the capability to “tag” Facebook friends while searching in Bing, actively soliciting the wisdom of real people when conducting searches. While this sounds like a great idea in theory, it’s unlikely to be used except by a minority of users.
That’s not to say bringing Facebook to search isn’t a good idea. Microsoft’s search strategy now leans heavily toward social, and encouraging one’s friends to engage via Bing can only help the company’s case.
But is it useful? Only in certain situations.
When Does It Help?
Here’s where the new announcement fits in. In May, Microsoft redesigned Bing to passively search information from virtually all of a user’s social networks. Bing now uses a “sidebar” to let users optionally search these networks, complementing the results from the main Bing algorithm. At the time, Microsoft said it might launch a future feature called “Broadcast,” which would actively ask friends on those social networks for advice or answers. That Broadcast feature, specifically for Facebook, went live on Monday.
Specifically, users can “tag” friends by naming them. When the search is “submitted,” Bing publishes a query to a user’s timeline, asking them, for example, “Can you recommend the best hiking trails?” for a given area. Bing can tag up to five friends at a time.
What “Search” Really Means
A quality search engine excels in providing immediacy, relevance and context. The race toward immediacy has largely faded into irrelevance; Google has argued that its Google Instant results save 2 to 5 seconds per search, or 350 million hours of user time per year. Still, users who search via the Internet Explorer or Chrome browsers can find relevant results almost instantly, through previous searches, autosuggested results or through an actual search via toolbar or search field.
And, in a way, that’s the issue with Microsoft’s tagging feature. Having essentially “solved” the problem of immediacy, Google and Microsoft have moved on to relevancy (apple trees vs. Apple) and providing context. Both Google and Microsoft now attempt to return “answers” to common questions, such as the height of the Empire State Building. Context is provided by related searches and, most recently, the social aspects of search.
But every time a friend is asked what his favorite restaurant in New York is, there’s an implicit delay. That’s not to say that the average Bing user won’t have a network of connected, informed enthusiastic friends. It’s that this network has to respond almost instantly for the “immediacy” aspect of the search paradigm to remain in effect.
Do Delays Matter?
Now, does this hesitation matter? For certain searches and certain users, no. If I’m planning a trip to Hawaii, and want to know the best hotel to stay at on Kauai, soliciting my Facebook friends during the planning stages makes sense, especially if I have a buddy who was stationed at Pearl Harbor and may know. But if I have 45 minutes to find the best BBQ joint near the Kansas City airport, I’m not sure that my friends will be the fastest, most reliable source of information.
There’s an exception, though. On July 18, Bing added Foursquare results to its social sidebar. Foursquare, Yelp and a number of other social networks publish your opinions for the world to see. They’re chiseled in stone, so to speak, and permanently searchable by your friends and others. It may be that my friend Dave has also been grounded in Kansas City, sought out some ribs and posted his experiences on Yelp. In that case, that results of that search would be immediate, relevant and fruitful.
Naturally, Bing - and anyone who uses this new feature - will have to tread carefully about bothering others for answers. Users are already hypersensitive to “spamming” their friends with pithy updates from Facebook social games and other apps. On the other hand, Microsoft has made the right choice to not automate the social search, instead forcing users to write their own “query” to their friends, using their own jargon and phrasing. That’s an important touch, as it will encourage the recipients to think of the query as a request for assistance, rather than an auto-generated spam message.
Right now, suggesting friends seems to be largely based on location. Still, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where you might be in the market for a new car, for example, and your friend across the country already owns the Acura you’re considering leasing. Bing needs to know that, however, in order to take advantage of the connection.
Bing vs. Google
Google, meanwhile, offers Search Plus Your World, but nothing that's comparable to the new Bing feature. For one thing, Google's offering focuses almost exclusively on Google+, and performs searches against information there. A user might get lucky while looking for a New York City restaurant recommendation if a Google+ contact happened to have put one in a post, but there's no way to reach out to your contacts. For what it's worth, Bing is head and shoulders above Google in this area.
Microsoft is likely thinking of the problem in a sort of hierarchy of value: Bing can deliver millions of search results, curated for you, which you ultimately select and explore via its search engine. Searching the social networks that you belong to narrows those results and adds value. At the top lies the personal recommendation from your friends, the highest value, but also probably the least timely.
Basically, there’s nothing different here than the person who tweets or updates: “HELP! Need Thai recommendations for the Mission, quick!” or “So what do you think of the new BMW 3-series?” That person may get lucky and get a timely, useful answer. Or, well, not. And that person doesn’t need Bing to do it, either.
To take advantage of Bing’s new social element when you really need it, though, it helps to have lots of friends with many, many opinions - and who have already published them for Bing to find.