by Charlene Li
Microsoft’s Bing.com search unit announced today that it is integrating Facebook’s social graph information into some parts of its search results. This is the long-awaited “social search” that I’ve been talking about and waiting for for years. I was briefed by Adam Sohn from Bing.com this morning. [Update: Danny Sullivan has an excellent deep dive into the new offerings from Bing, as well as implications for SEO and Google.]
Search algorithms have used different types of “signals” like location to figure out what it is that the person is trying find or do. By integrating Facebook’s social graph and the “like” data generated by Facebook members, Bing is adding social signals to its algorithms.
In a nutshell, Bing announced two new features that take advantage of this new social signal: Liked Results and Profile Search.
When you are signed in to Facebook (more on what exactly that is later) and do a search on Bing, you have the option of seeing search results that take into account what your Facebook friends have “liked.” For example, if I’m searching for “restaurant Napa Valley”, I’ll see the 10 blue links that Bing’s search algorithm normally delivers. But I’ll also have the ability to see results that have been “liked” by my friends as well that also match the query.
It’s a way to highlight search results that your friends have liked. The fact that many of my friends are wine-drinking parents who may have dragged their kids along for a wine tasting tour means that the Liked Results are going to be just slightly more relevant to my particular situation.
Where it gets interesting is when the Liked Results don’t show up in the first page of the search engine results page (SERP). Bing then suddenly becomes much more relevant because it is personalized to you because of your social graph. Sohn explained to me that in the future, they plan to include what they call “algo annotation” that will show the signals that are being used to rank the result. For example, you’ll be able to see how many friends liked a particular link. There’s also the possibility in the future of showing not only likes, but also check-ins, photos of food and people, or reviews from friends associated with a particular restaurant in Napa.
About 4% of searches on Bing are name searches, amounting to about 1 billion searches a month. The problem is if you’re looking for a particular person — especially if they have a common name — it’s hard to differentiate. By tapping into your social graph, Bing looks at your friends, your friends’ friends, and your networks to return results that have greater “social proximity” to you. These search results will also appear as a separate module.
Privacy and Permissions
The key to making all of this work is that the person using Bing is logged into Facebook and thus gives permission for Bing to tap into his/her social graph and data. Bing is taking steps to make sure notifications are clear and require explicit opt-in. Over time, the notifications will cease to pop up, because the assumption is that the user will no longer want the notifications to appear after repeated acceptances.
Even if you are not logged into Facebook in another tab but have clicked on the “Keep me logged in” check box, you’re setting your cookie to sign you in for a set period of time, which is approximately two weeks right now. This usually isn’t a problem — as long as I’m the only person using the computer. But on a shared computer — like the one that’s in my kitchen — I am frequently inadvertently logged in as my husband and have done things such as accepted friends and Liked items on his account!
Now with search being impacted, I’ll have to make double sure that I’m logged in (or not) when using Bing.
Surfacing social graph information like photos and check-ins will raise even further the cries around privacy and permissions on Facebook. For someone who has set their privacy settings as completely public — and is careful about not putting up private items — this isn’t a problem. But most people are much more nuanced about this, maybe posting photos from an evening out that will now have the possibility of being taken completely out of context.
I believe that having social data in search results will lead to some inadvertent and potentially embarrassing and explosive situations, which in the end will curb people’s appetite for sharing socially. In the same way that college students realize that Facebook posts and photos will follow them into their professional careers, Facebook members will be more circumspect about posting when they see their friends’ social information showing up in general search results.
Power Shifts With Social Search
The rise of social search means that the people using it — and the companies who know how to leverage it — will have an advantage over those who don’t leverage social technologies. There are three major implications:
- SEO will lose relevance. Search engine optimization (SEO) — where a Web or content person tweaks a web page to get higher SERP positions — will lose effectiveness as search results become more influenced by social signals. While a company could potentially manipulate “likes” for an item or Web page, marketers can’t SEO your friends. The result: better search results for people who leverage their social graph, because the search results will include more relevant data.
- Socially connected people will make more money. If I have a great set of friends, I’ll be able to make better decisions because of more relevant search results. People in my network will start noticing the benefits of likes from their friends and be motivated to be more socially connected as well. It’s the classic network effect, but rather than be driven by purely social incentives, there are clear monetary ones as well — getting better deals, finding things faster, etc.
- Bing’s social search hits Google right between the eyes. Google has recently been making noises that it wants access to Facebook’s social graph, calling for the company to be more open. That’s because Google realizes that unless it can harness social graph data, it will be relegated to traditional algorithmic search based primarily on the information on the Web page itself and scrapping what social data it can. You can see some of Google’s early attempts at social search at https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/10/introducing-google-social-search-i.html.
Because Microsoft’s Bing is the privileged search provider on Facebook, it enjoys special access to the social graph and data that no one else does. That’s going to be a huge competitive advantage in a social-driven world, where users and marketers (and their search dollars) will flock to the search engine that performs.
Does it seem unlikely that Bing could unseat Google? It’s happened before. Remember that Yahoo used to be the search leader until Google came on the scene because of its new approach to search. So look for this new phase to come with significant changes.