Today’s Bing news is very interesting, not because the new functionality that Microsoft and Facebook announced is terribly powerful, but because it demonstrates how the next great evolution of search will occur. In brief, Bing announced two new ways it is introducing social data into its search results:
- Enhancing results with Facebook Likes: If you search on Bing and your Facebook friends have "liked" something related to your search term, you will see those "likes" highlighted within your search results. The idea behind this functionality is that something your friend "likes" will be more interesting to you than other search results.
- Facebook profile search: Bing reports that more than 4% of searches are for people. Of course, trying to find a particular Bob Smith can be a challenge, which is why Bing will utilize your Facebook network to help you find the Bob Smith that is most likely the one you seek.
On face value, neither of these new functions is all that earth shattering. Presenting the things your friends have "liked" is helpful but hardly a guarantee of relevance; this is because people click the "like" button for a huge number of reasons ranging from true advocacy to a desire to get a free bagel, some Farmville bucks or be entered into a sweepstakes. The Facebook Profile Search is likewise a fine idea, but anyone who has used LinkedIn will recognize that the degrees of separation within our social graph is powerful data for locating a specific individual.
But before we dismiss Bing's new functionality too quickly, it's important to put it into context and recognize where this will lead us. Microsoft has taken care to note this new social search functionality is a “a starting point,” and it is just that — a first step toward making search more useful, personalized and relevant by tapping searchers' social graphs. As more people collect, post, share and add more “likes” and social content, the value of social search will improve.
What we're seeing is nothing less than the re-evolution of search. Back in the dark ages of search (when Google, Yahoo and Microsoft competed with the likes of Dogpile, AltaVista, HotBot and Lycos), results were gathered and ranked based on very few data points, such as page titles and meta data. Those were poor sources for search engine relevance and were prone to being gamed using "Black Hat SEO" tactics, so the back end of search became ever more complex in order to furnish users with ever more relevant search results. While today's Bing social search functionality may seem relatively crude, it is just a starting point on a journey toward far more complex parsing of social data into useful, pertinent search results.
As the ability to convert social data into relevant knowledge improves, so will the value of social search. After all, what my friends do and think is more important to my information gathering and decisions than what the entire world does and thinks.