Bing has a new zing. On Thursday, Microsoft unveiled what it described as a "major update," the most significant since the search engine's launch three years ago. The rollout will take place over the next few weeks, and the company is working on a mobile -friendly version to complement this desktop browser incarnation.
Among other things, the new Bing is intended to enable recommendations from friends and experts via a new social sidebar. There's also a Snapshot feature for useful, ready-to-do information, and the new three-column design is intended to facilitate decision-making.
More than 'A Graph of Links'
Qi Lu, head of Microsoft's Online Services Division, said in a statement that the Web is now more than "simply finding information by navigating a topically organized graph of links." Instead, Lu said, search must now "empower people with the broad knowledge of the Web alongside the help of their friends."
In research prior to the updates, Microsoft found that 60 percent of users wondered if they had found the best information available for their inquiry, and slightly more than half responded that their search required multiple inquiries and many site visits. The redesign attempts to address those issues by providing more efficient and useful results.
The enhancements include faster traditional Web searches displayed into the new interface, and a separate Snapshot column that contains actionable related information compiled by Bing.
In an example given by Microsoft, a search for "Drake Hotel Chicago" results in a first column of search results, and a second column displays key info -- average room rate, check in/check out fields to find a more exact rate, a map, ratings for the hotel from three leading travel sites, and then relevant ads.
Microsoft said that the Snapshot second column allows users to avoid having to search different travel sites to read reviews, see interior photos, and combine them to form an opinion about, say, the Drake Hotel in Chicago.
'Overloading Users with Clutter'
Snapshot is currently designed to work best when the engine can determine a clear customer intent, such as looking for a restaurant, hotel, business or movie. The feature is expected to grow in capability over time to provide useful information about a larger variety of searches.
The third "social" column shows comments by friends in your social circle on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other social services, divided into "friends who might know," "people who know," and then simply "activity" to show latest comments.
The social information is taken from public information in a user profile, including where friends have lived, what they've liked, and photos. Additionally, friends can respond on Facebook or Bing, with recommendations that can help with a given search.
Microsoft noted that it is separating out social comments, since, in the words of Bing Corporate Vice President Derrick Connell, both Bing and Google "were starting to jam social signals into the Web results," which was "overloading users with clutter."
Other changes include eliminating the lefthand panel and moving the "recent searches" section to the top of the page, to allow quicker access . Additionally, "related searches" has been moved next to the Web results.