And Now To See If This Social Search Stuff Actually Works

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Yesterday, in a massively botched press launch, Bing released some new features that begin to really tap into the huge amount of social data exposed through its partnership with Facebook. The alliance isn’t a new one — the companies have had a friendly relationship ever since Microsoft made a $240 million investment in Facebook that valued the social network at $15 billion in 2007, and Bing launched Facebook’s Instant Personalization last October.

But Bing’s Facebook integration up until now was a little superficial — if you ran a query relevant to something your friend had previously ‘Liked’ on Facebook, you’d see that in a special module embedded in the search results page. Beginning today, things are getting much more interesting: Bing will actually reorder search results based on friends’ Likes (in other words, your friend’s recommendations won’t just be relegated to a standalone widget, they’ll influence the Ten Blue Links).

That isn’t all. If you run a query that matches information in a friend’s profile (but not necessarily their ‘Likes’) then Bing might show a link to their profile too (for example, run a query for “San Francisco” and you’ll see which of your friends live in SF). Sometimes Bing will show that a certain result has been liked N number of times by other users, even people who aren’t your friends. Bing’s blog post announcing the news outlines the features in more detail. And they look nifty.

But there’s still a big question: will social search, a term that gets tossed around as if it’s some kind of Holy Grail, actually be useful?

The average Facebook user has around 130 friends, which isn’t that many in the grand scheme of things, so you’ll be drawing from a limited amount of recommended content. And my hunch is that the majority of ‘Likes’ are concentrated around a few key areas that include movies, TV shows, breaking news, and humor — you know, the things you see popping up in your Facebook News Feed all the time. Obviously people search for those things on Bing, and when you’re looking for that awesome dancing Android video you heard about but don’t know the name of, surfacing these water-cooler links can be invaluable.

But people use search engines for a ton of other tasks too, and many of them aren’t involving the sort of content that people share to Facebook. How times have you actually ‘Liked’ the new shoes you just ordered? Or your favorite hotel in the Caribbean? Or the how-to guide on repairing your dishwasher? Everything you Like is shared with your friends via the News Feed, and when you share something they’re interested in — like breaking news, or something funny — there’s positive reinforcement as they interact with that shared story. But at the same time you’re probably going to be a little hesitant to start Liking things that are more mundane, even if you found them useful.

And there’s also the question of whether people actually care what their friends think. Internally, Facebook has found that people aren’t necessarily motivated to click links because they share similar tastes with their friends — sometimes, people are interested in a piece of content because it was shared by their friend. In other words, we care about our friends’ recommendations because we care about our friends, not necessarily because we like similar things. So do these ‘Liked’ pages become helpful for finding the information you’re searching for?

I asked some of these questions to Stefan Weitz, director of Bing, who was unsurprisingly a bit more optimistic than I am. He says that the ‘new web’ is inherently social, and that for the first time in human history we can tap into the data that was previously stored in people’s heads. But that’s long-term.

The features Bing launched yesterday, he says, are not ‘the ultimate social search’. He explains that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg, and that social search isn’t going to revolve exclusively around Facebook data. “It’s hard to predict where it’s going next,” Weitz says. “Facebook went from zero Likes to what they have now in one year. The challenge is to not get too locked into one signal — we have to pivot quickly around the current zeitgeist.”

As for my concerns about the way people are ‘Liking’ content with Facebook and how that ties into search, Weitz says that it’s still up to the user to figure out which of their friends’ recommendations are relevant (e.g. if you see one of your gadget-savvy friends ‘Like’ a camera, that’s important; someone else’s recommendation may not be).

And, regarding the scope of content that people are Liking, Weitz points out just how new the Like button is, and that it generally appears in inconsistent places on webpages. Bing launched a new browser toolbar as part of yesterday’s news that solves this issue, but this is only available to IE users. And I’m not convinced that people are having a hard time finding the buttons — I just don’t think they’re compelled to click them unless they really want to broadcast something to their friends.

Of course, Facebook isn’t standing still either. It has every incentive to get you to Like a broader array of content online — after all, its ad platform revolves around showing your friends what you’ve Liked. And it also has a strong incentive to give partners like Bing a way to leverage that data in a useful way.