Hands on with Bing's social search feature

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It’s abundantly clear Bing meant to stick a thumb in the eye of Google when it recently unveiled its new “social search” features. While Google famously promotes items from its Google+ service in search results, Bing—somewhat snarkily—promises to be a bit more fair, including results from a host of social networking sites.

Yes, there are some deep pockets at Microsoft, Bing’s parent company. But it’s unlikely executives would’ve agreed to invest in social search merely to tweak their search engine rivals—the feature needs to work well to attract users.

So how does it work?

You’ll need a Facebook account to find out. While you can also sign into Bing using a Windows Live account, the social search features best work—and really only make sense—if you’ve logged into the service using Facebook.

Once you’ve done that, the differences between Google and Bing become clear pretty quickly. A search in Bing brings back three columns of results: The main column, on the left, is where you’d find the expected top results to your search query. A skinny middle column displays advertisements along with a list of suggested related searches. And the righthand column—with a stark background of charcoal gray—provides the most obvious difference: It’s where the most social results from your searches will live.

Bing search results produce three columns—the top results on the left, a middle column of ads and suggested searches, and the social results of your search on the right.

Using a search for “movies” as a guide, here is what you’ll find in that column:

• At the top, what appears to be a comment box is where you can enter a Facebook status. Enter something there, and it will post a link to your Facebook page—with a Bing logo as its biggest element—asking friends on that service to “help me with my search for ‘movies.’” You can’t change the wording of that request but you can add your own comments. You can also insert links from the main column of results in the posting.

• Below that box, there’s a list of “Friends Who Might Know” about the topic you’ve searched—a section that includes results only from Facebook. The number of results will vary from topic to topic, but never exceed five people—people who, in this case, have included lists of movies they like on their Facebook page. (Why just these five? Are they also Bing users, or is there some other reason they appear in results? It’s unclear, and Bing’s accompanying link explaining “Why are your friends here?” wasn’t working when I tested the service.)

The Friends Who Might Know section on the right column displays results from no more than five people based on what Bing finds in Facebook.

Bing’s Friends Who Might Know section includes geographically specific search results.

You have a couple of options here. You can click on the names of your friends—in which case you’ll see a mini-popup window within the page that offers more details about their connection to the topic. (In the case of the “movies” search, that means a longer list of the flicks they’ve enjoyed.) Or you can click a button to the right of your friends’ names, which makes it possible for you to post a query about the search topic directly to their wall. (The question won’t appear in their timeline unless they approve.)

This area, incidentally, is where you can also get some geographically specific results. Search for a location—like Lawrence, Kansas—and you’ll get a list of up to five Facebook friends who have lived in or near that location, or who “checked in” on the service while visiting there. Again, though, I have dozens of Facebook friends who have lived in Lawrence: Why just the five I see in my search results?

Clicking on a name in the social search sidebar produces a pop-up with more information on what that person knows about your search topic.

• Below the Facebook section of the column is another section: “People Who Know.” This is where Bing’s developers have promised you’ll find results from Twitter, Foursquare, Quora, LinkedIn, Blogger, and even Google+. (Mostly, it seems, the results are from Twitter—natural, considering the size of the microblogging service’s user base.) Because Bing doesn’t integrate with those services, the results you see here don’t include your friends, unless you have famous friends. The search for “movies” turned up the Twitter feeds of four film critics—including Roger Ebert—and one for a website specializing in popular movies. Click on the names here, and you’ll get that person’s three most recent tweets. If you want to respond to those tweets, though, you’ll have to leave Bing for the Twitter client of your choice—you can’t talk back within the search results page.

• Finally, at the bottom of the column, is an “Activity” box. If you’ve posted search-related queries to Facebook from the Bing page, that’s where such actions will be noted.

When Bing combs Twitter for results, it won’t turn up tweets from people you follow; rather it shows Twitter feeds of well-known people who have a connection to the topic.

Bing’s “social search” differences with Google aren’t restricted to the sidebar, however. Some of those differences can be found back in the main results column.

If you search for a friend, relative, or colleague, for example, their Facebook profile will show up at the top of the results page, along with small icons featuring your mutual Facebook friends. Privacy advocates shouldn’t worry, however—if your settings are meant to keep you out of the public eye, your page won’t appear in these results, or appear in the list of mutual friends.

And Bing’s results appear to be more focused overall on a range of social networks. A search for “What are some good fantasy books?” in Bing turned up results from Yahoo Answers and Quora in first and third places, respectively. The same Google search featured those same links in sixth and fifth places.

Bing’s search results for fantasy books—pictured on the left—are focused on a wider range of social networks than what you get from Google (shown on the right).

One more social feature: If you want to search for and buy a product—say, “Nike shoes,” you can search for them in Bing, add them to a “shopping list,” and share that list via Facebook.

Bing suggests that if you want social search results all the time, you should install the Bing toolbar in Internet Explorer, and log into Facebook. I used the service on a Mac, without access to a recent version of IE, so I wasn’t able to test how well that actually works.

If it turns out you don’t like Bing’s social search, by the way, you can click a “disable” button any of the first five times you visit the site using the service. If you decide later to opt out, you’ll have to go to Facebook and use its “block app” feature to uncouple it from Bing.

So Bing apparently does offer a wider variety of social networking results than Google. Whether you take advantage of those results, however, depends on how much you want your friends to influence your searches—and how much you want them to know about what you’re doing.

This story, "Hands on with Bing's social search feature" was originally published by TechHive.

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