Microsoft today unveiled a major update to its Bing search engine that fundamentally transforms the way users search the Web. The update, the most significant since Microsoft launched Bing three years ago, is designed to help users act quickly by taking advantage of the Web’s evolving fabric.
With the new version of Bing, rolling out over the coming weeks and broadly available in the U.S. in early June, people can easily get advice and recommendations from friends and experts with the new social sidebar. They can also view useful, action-oriented information via the new snapshot feature. And they can find what they’re looking for faster, with more relevant results and a refreshed user interface. All of this is presented in a new, three-column design that focuses on helping users take the leap from finding information to making quick, informed decisions.
“Increasingly, the Web is about much more than simply finding information by navigating a topically organized graph of links,” says Qi Lu, president of Microsoft’s Online Services Division. “We’re evolving search in a way that recognizes new user paradigms like the growth of the social graph, and will empower people with the broad knowledge of the Web alongside the help of their friends.”
The new Bing updates were developed in response to user research showing that people use search engines to save time and get things done quickly. More than two-thirds of consumers use search to accomplish tasks, according to a Microsoft user survey. Yet 60 percent wonder whether they have found the best information available for what they’re trying to do, and 52 percent find themselves entering multiple queries and visiting lots of sites for searches that shouldn’t be so hard.
“People are using the Web to do things in the real world, and that’s a big change from where things were a decade ago,” says Bing Senior Director Stefan Weitz. “And so the 10 blue links that search has been predicated on for the last decade no longer makes sense. Simply put, that’s not how you get things done.”
The new features in Bing are designed to help people complete tasks combining the best information from the Web, rich data organized in a better way, and the input of friends and experts.
- Improved Web Results: Consumers can perform traditional Web searches faster, with more relevant results using the new, cleaner user interface.
- Snapshot: Users can quickly complete tasks by viewing useful information related to their searches and compiled by Bing as a single “snapshot” – all in one place in a separate column.
- Sidebar: Consumers can take action based on the recommendations of friends and experts in the sidebar – displayed in a third column, separate from main Web results page.
Improving the Core Search Experience
When people search the Web, they want to find what they’re looking for and find it fast. Yet only one in four searches is satisfied by the first query. “So three out of four times, you have to do something else to get the answer you want,” says Weitz. “If your car only started one out of four times, you’d be pretty upset. Yet when searching the Internet, people have been forced to live with poor results.”
With Bing, engineers improved the relevancy of Web searches by removing unnecessary links and simplifying the results to the core set of information users are looking for. They also separated out most social network results from the main Web results. “Both Bing and Google were starting to jam social signals into the Web results, and it turns out it wasn’t that relevant and it was overloading users with clutter,” says Derrick Connell, Corporate Vice President, Bing. “With this release, we’ve taken most of that out of the Web results and given users the traditional search results that they love and expect.”
While engineers worked to improve performance, a team of about 20 designers revamped the user interface to make it simpler and cleaner. “One of our goals with Bing was clarity of information,” says Robert Dietz, principal design manager for Bing. “We wanted to remove the noise and the extraneous information so that the real heroes on the page would be the results.”
Designers cleaned up the search results page by eliminating the left-hand panel and moving the “recent searches” section to the top of the page for quicker access. The “related searches” section has been moved to the middle column, next to the Web results. Removing the “left rail” and cleaning up the results makes it easier for users to scan the page and quickly find the information they want. “It’s really a completely different user interface,” says Sally Salas, a lead program manager at Microsoft. “It looks cleaner, which makes it easier to quickly scan the main results down the left edge while providing supplementary information in the snapshot area and recommendations from your friends in the sidebar.”
Snapshot: Useful Information All in One Place
Microsoft has also improved the search experience with “snapshot,” a new feature that displays useful information about a specific place or topic in one location in the middle column of the search results page. If a user searches for hotels in San Francisco, for example, in the main search results Bing will surface results for hotels including hotel star ratings, locations and average rates. Snapshot takes it a step further by letting people select check-in and check-out dates, see interior views of the property and read reviews to help them find and book the best hotel in the area. “Up until now, people would have to visit different sites, read reviews about that hotel, and cobble them all together to form an opinion,” says Weitz. “With snapshot, we do the heavy lifting by assembling the most useful information in a way that allows people to quickly consume it and make it valuable.”
Similarly, if a user searches for La Bernardin Restaurant in New York City, snapshot may show the location, the phone number, a map, directions, the hours of operation, the menu, reviews, images of the inside of the restaurant, and a link to help users book a table online. “Our goal was to do a better job organizing information and objects so users can quickly take action,” Weitz says. “That’s the new architecture, and it’s fundamentally different from anything anyone else is doing today.”
Initially, snapshot will be displayed for searches where Bing can determine a clear customer intent focused on accomplishing a specific task including restaurants, hotels, businesses and movies. Over time, the feature will be expanded to a greater number of places, things and people. “The technology we built on the back-end can scale incredibly well so we’re particularly pleased,” says Connell.
Sidebar: Recommendations from Friends, Experts and Enthusiasts
Perhaps most significant, the new Bing revolutionizes the search experience by bringing in social signals in the right way and making it easier for users to take action based on the advice of friends and experts. Ninety-two percent of people trust word-of-mouth recommendations from their friends and family above all other forms of communication, according to Microsoft research. Yet only 8 percent use social networks as a way to get things done.
“Before the Internet, mostly how you got things done was through people – you’d ask your friends, you’d call your Mom, you’d get insights from co-workers,” says Connell. “Today, more and more people are joining social networks, chatting about things on Facebook and Twitter, but it’s very difficult to capture their knowledge on a Web page.”
The new “sidebar” feature is designed to do just that. When searching for a particular subject, a list of Facebook friends who may know about that topic is displayed in a light-gray sidebar on the right-side panel of the results page. “So if you query ‘Hawaii,’ user models in the network look at public information in your profile such as where your friends live or have lived, what they’ve liked on Facebook, and photos — and turn up a list of people who likely have information relevant to your query,” says Sandy Wong, principal development lead for Bing. “You’ll still see search results for Hawaii within the traditional Web search results. But now you’ll also be able to consider the advice of your friends who may know something about Hawaii.”
Users can post a question and include Web links to get input from the friends Bing suggests, and friends can respond on Facebook or Bing, offering recommendations to help with the search. “The goal is to surface the people who have knowledge about a particular topic,” says Connell. “We want to make it easy for people to accomplish anything they set out to do by allowing them to tap into the wisdom of their friends and of the broader Web – the 95 percent of things people know but never write down.”
The sidebar also displays the names of experts and enthusiasts who have blogged or tweeted about topics related to one’s search. Users can click on the person’s name and read their blog or follow them on Twitter.
The Road Ahead
The new release of Bing will begin rolling out in the coming weeks and will be broadly available in the U.S. in early June. Consumers can sign up at www.bing.com/new to be notified of availability for their PC, and at m.bing.com to receive notification of availability for smartphones.
Gartner analyst Ray Valdes praised the new release of Bing, saying the social search component has the potential to increase user loyalty and engagement over the long term. “Microsoft shows determination in the ongoing search engine competition, and a willingness to invest in innovation,” he says.
Lu, president of Microsoft’s Online Services Division, says this investment is just the beginning. “We’ve now entered a new era of search,” he says. “We have begun an important journey that is no longer just about pulling in a bunch of Web pages. It’s about completing tasks quickly and efficiently with the help of Bing, the best of the Web, and people and experts we all trust.”