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Microsoft's Bing aims to ding Google with new format

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MICHAEL LIEDTKE

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REBING: Microsoft changes to Bing will reshape how the search engine displays its search results.

REBING: Microsoft changes to Bing will reshape how the search engine displays its search results.

Microsoft's Bing search engine is heading in a new direction as it drills deeper into Facebook's social network and Twitter's messaging service to showcase information unlikely to be found on Google.

The changes, unveiled on Thursday in the US, will reshape how Bing displays its search results. It represents Microsoft's most dramatic shift in internet search since the software maker introduced Bing as a "decision engine" nearly three years ago.

Microsoft is counting on the new format to loosen Google's stranglehold on the lucrative internet search market. In the process, Microsoft hopes to turn a profit in its online division, which has lost more than $US6.3 billion since Bing's June 2009 debut.

Bing replaced "Live Search", a mostly futile attempt to challenge Google. Microsoft touted Bing as a Google alternative that would provide more meaningful results by helping people make important decisions, such as picking a doctor and finding the best time to buy an airline ticket.

For the past two years, Bing has been taking advantage of Microsoft's close relationship with Facebook to make search results more personalised and more relevant to users. It's an advantage Bing has over Google because its rival is shut out from the personal data Microsoft has access to on the world's largest network. But Bing has failed to come up with an approach compelling enough to lure away most web surfers from Google.

Bing is trying to fix that with the latest changes, which come out next month. Microsoft plans a marketing blitz on television and the internet to promote the changes. Anyone seeking a peek during the next few weeks of testing can sign up for an invitation. The testing period will begin Tuesday, May 15.

The revised system presents Bing's results in three columns, or panes.

The left column will feature the familiar blue links drawn from Bing's computer formula for finding the most relevant results.

The middle section, called "Snapshot", is reserved for completing tasks, such as getting directions, making a hotel reservation or buying movie tickets. This feature isn't expected to be available during the testing phase.

Once available, Snapshot will provide a space featuring movie show times and an option to buy tickets in response to a search for The Avengers. Searches for hotels will bring up pictures of rooms and information on amenities, as well as the ability to make reservations.

The "Sidebar" column on the far right side will be the centrepiece of the new Bing.

Sidebar is where Bing users logged into Facebook will see recommendations culled from their Facebook network. From there, people will be able to pose questions for their friends on their own Facebook pages without leaving the results page. The results from a Bing search can even be shared on Facebook.

For instance, a search for "Kauai hotels" might list your Facebook friends who have been to the island. You can then use the Sidebar box to post a note about it on Facebook and even seek advice from a specific friend.

The Sidebar column also will highlight relevant tweets, including those from people you might not follow. The feature will also suggest experts on topics related to certain search requests and list their Twitter handles, along with any blogs or other websites where they share their insights.

Most of the personal data that Bing is pulling from Facebook and Twitter is unavailable to Google because its search engine doesn't have the same access to those information-sharing hubs as Microsoft does through its partnerships.

"This is a big, bold bet that we think is going to surprise a lot of people," said Lisa Gurry, Bing's senior director. "It's a fundamentally different way of looking at search."

It's also an admission by Bing that its previous attempts to incorporate Facebook data into its search results haven't worked out.

Although Bing has been far more successful than Live Search, virtually all of its gains have come at the expense of Yahoo, which began relying on Microsoft's search technology in 2010 as part of a 10-year partnership between the companies. Bing's latest changes won't affect how Yahoo users get search results.

For the past year, Bing has been customising search results based on the recommendations expressed by the number of times a user's Facebook network had pressed a "like" button on topics related to a search request. Gurry said Bing discovered that most web surfers didn't want the results influenced by their friends to be co-mingled with answers generated by a computer program.

That culminated in the decision to create Sidebar so a separate area of the results page is devoted to the social-networking suggestions.

Bing's experience underscores the difficulty that all search engines have had figuring out how to blend the influence of social networking into their results, said Altimeter Group analyst Rebecca Lieb.

"Different parts of the social graph are good for different reasons," she said. "When I am looking for advice about a movie, I probably don't want to see a recommendation from one of my 'foodie' friends. What Bing is doing looks like a very elegant approach, but it remains to be seen if people are going to like it."

Lieb doesn't believe it's a coincidence that Bing is announcing its Facebook-friendly makeover as the world's largest social network prepares to complete the biggest initial public offering of stock in Silicon Valley history. The media frenzy surrounding Facebook's IPO, expected next week, can only make more people more curious to see how Bing is highlighting results from the social network, Lieb said.

Microsoft has been working closely with Facebook since it bought a 1.6 per cent stake in the social network for $US240 million in 2007. It has proven to be a tremendous investment. Microsoft's Facebook stake is now worth $US900 million to $US1.2 billion, depending on the price set in the IPO.

And now Bing can pore through the reams of information being posted by Facebook's more than 900 million users, 18 times more than the social network had when Microsoft bought its stake.

Twitter also has been selling Microsoft expanded access to its tweets since 2009. Google lost its special privileges to the same stream of data last summer because Twitter didn't renew a licensing agreement.

That partnership unravelled right around the same time Google launched its Plus social network to counter the growing popularity of Facebook and Twitter. In a move that has amplified questions about its objectivity, Google began this year to favour results drawn from Plus while excluding publicly available information from Facebook and Twitter - data Google doesn't need a licensing deal for.

The bias has provided more fodder for an intensifying Federal Trade Commission investigation into allegations that Google has been stifling competition by highlighting its own services and burying or completely ignoring links to its rivals' websites.

Despite Microsoft's massive investments in search, Bing hasn't been able to ding Google so far. Microsoft has nearly doubled the 8 per cent share of the US search market that it held when it rolled out Bing, but virtually all of those gains have come at the expense of Yahoo.

Google ended March with a 66 per cent share of the US search market, up by a percentage point from June 2009 when Bing entered the fray, according to the research firm comScore Inc Bing's share currently a distant second at 15 per cent.

Unlike its rival, Bing intends to include relevant recommendations from a wide range of social-networking services, including Google Plus.

"We are not trying to build an empire by favouring some services over others," Gurry said.

Reuters

22 comments

  • You'd think a company with that kind of money could hire the kind of creative talent that would get things right the first time. There must be a real culture of stifling creative talent at that place. Microsoft is always playing catch-up because they are basically just imitators.

    Commenter
    David
    Date and time
    May 11, 2012, 4:47PM
    • I don't expect money = creative. But money certainly can get things into market quicker without the creative expectation of customer. Since the departure of Bill Gate i expect any breakthrough milestone from Microsoft.

      Commenter
      Gerson
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 8:36PM
    • Well said David.

      Commenter
      Dano
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 10:36PM
    • I don't think that's quite right. What Microsoft does and used to do, is buy a software company and then innovate until they get it right. Every product that MS has ever released has followed this pattern.
      However, they are just too old and tired to do anything new and worthwhile.
      Bing? Does anybody use that? It must the loneliest product out there. Maybe folks who use Yahoo and MySpace use Bing. I never even consider anything other than Google.

      Commenter
      ejr1959
      Location
      Double Bay
      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 11:45PM
    • At Microsoft, they look at how some of their top selling works started as imitations.

      Then they look at brand new attempts at design, like say for Windows Phone 7 - which is still playing catch up while Google's Android (basically copying the iPhone) is miles ahead in terms of popularity and sales.

      What do you think this says to the company? When we invest and do cool new creative works we get brushed off, but when we copy others we are the most successful.

      How do you respond to your shareholders?

      Commenter
      John
      Date and time
      May 12, 2012, 9:38AM
    • Do you think that Google got it right first time? I think you need to understand things a bit more before you start mouthing off about things. Things change, things improve, that's life- at least recognise effort to improve.

      Commenter
      Steven
      Date and time
      May 12, 2012, 7:12PM
    • You are forgetting that Microsoft has the world's best Office productivity suite ever! and the best operating system ever (Windows 7)! Hotmail was first and is one of the best with Messenger. Microsoft had smart phones and PDAs over 10 years now. Microsoft brought the computer to the masses so someone like you can bag them cheaply.

      Commenter
      jabein
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      May 12, 2012, 7:19PM
    • Serious question (I don't work for Microsoft): Who were Microsoft imiating when they came out with the Metro interface (for Windows Phone 7 and later tablets) that utilised tiles?

      To be fair that's the one original thing I can think of...but it wouldn't surprise me if they just purchased that from some little-known tech start-up.

      Commenter
      Aequitas
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 12, 2012, 10:59PM
  • @David

    Microsoft, forever the stepchild of the tech world.
    I fail to see how any of their products in the past 5 years are "imitations" of anything else on the market. Please enlighten me and other readers on which products are imitations and how

    Commenter
    Big M
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 12, 2012, 7:31AM
    • I used to use Bing - but eventually got fed up with it - too many times the bar "disappeared" to be replaced by error messages. Switched to Google, and have had no problems. Perhaps Microsoft and Bing could sort out the existing problems before making statements about how good this search engine will be in the future.

      Commenter
      Maza
      Date and time
      May 12, 2012, 9:41AM

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