Guest Post: Search without Social is Incomplete

Bill-HankesThis is a guest post by Bill Hankes, a director at Bing, Microsoft’s search engine.

The amount of data Facebook ingests every day is roughly equivalent to the total amount of Internet traffic at the height of the Internet bubble. Think about that. The amount of data back in 1998 was so immense that search technology couldn’t keep up, and a company called Google was founded to help people access this burgeoning corpus of information.

Interestingly, we face the same dilemma today with Facebook that users of the World Wide Web faced years ago. We know there’s a wealth of useful knowledge housed in social networks that we’d like to intelligently access, but the tools today are still relatively young.

The data created every day on social networks is just as important as any other content being published on the web. Maybe even more so because it’s from a source you may know or trust. Suppose your friend posted a photo using her new Olympus underwater camera on a recent scuba trip, or your foodie friend checked in on Facebook or Foursquare at the new local gastro-pub? How might that information influence your decisions or help you get something done? What are the implications for brands given the availability of social data in search?

How many times have you seen a friend post something like, “Atlanta peeps: know a good plumber?” Or “Need a restaurant reco in Seattle?” Facebook is great for getting advice from friends and family about any number of topics ranging from trip planning to shopping and more. The problem is that the information quickly gets buried in the News Feed and finding it again, or using it to help others, is no easy task.

At Bing, we think the information is invaluable and can help you take action. In fact, we think for search engines to ignore the wealth of information readily available on the social graph is tantamount to malpractice. Anything else is simply incomplete.

That’s not to suggest that the problem is an easy one to solve. On the contrary, we have been working to find the right way to integrate social into search for a few years, which was industry leading work that other search providers were not attempting. We tried a few things and learned a lot as we blazed a new trail, which we used to launch the Bing social sidebar less than a year ago. At first we provided close integration with Facebook to surface basic information your friends may have shared. Then we added data from Twitter, Foursquare, Quora, Klout, and also influential bloggers into the sidebar, which sits on the right-hand side of the search results page.

Now you can see information relevant to your Bing searches directly from your Facebook friends and other social connections: things like photos from places they’ve visited, questions and advice posted in status updates and comments, and check-ins. All of this information can help you make faster, more informed decisions – isn’t this why you turned to search to begin with?

bing-social-results-cameraI recently shopped for a digital camera, but I haven’t used an SLR since high school. Where did I turn for help? Search, of course. I see the usual shopping information in the search results, but I also see that my friend Alam has posted a link to a new Canon camera that he’s purchased. This is naturally helpful to me, but it is equally important to brands. Marketers for these brands should think about how they will now show up in Bing’s sidebar, and ensure that product and service information is socially sharable, just like Canon does in this example.

I’m also planning a family vacation this summer to Iceland, so I recently did a search for Reykjavik. In addition to normal results you’d expect any search engine to provide, Bing shows me that three of my friends have been to this city and have either posted photos from places they’ve visited in and around Reykjavik, or posed questions asking for advice. This is the type of information I’m actually looking for and can immediately help me in my planning, so I can now follow comments that their friends have provided in response, and join the conversation by posting my own comment directly from Bing that will also show up on Facebook. What’s interesting here, again from a brand perspective, is the possibility of linking to hotel or attraction information.

bing-social-results-reykjavik

I consider this experiential information from my Facebook friends to be far more valuable than links to sites with reviews by people I don’t know. And when actionable social content is added to existing useful resources from across the web that comes up in organic search results, a much more holistic view of the information becomes available. Considering the number of friends we all have on Facebook, as well as connections on other social networks, the information they post is important and helpful to your search experience.

We are still in the early days of social search, but give it a try and let us know what you think. Just go to Bing.com and in the top right corner of the page connect your Facebook account to Bing.

Bill Hankes is a director at Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, where he focuses on social search, the company’s work on entity understanding, and cross-company efforts to integrate Bing capabilities into Windows, Xbox and other devices and services.

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