It’s not exactly a secret that we at Single Grain have been critical of the way Google’s recent “Search Plus Your World” rollout was handled. Just take a look at Sujan’s inflammatory post on Search Engine Journal, titled “Is Google+ the Unwanted of the Social Networking World?” to see both our case against the search giant’s seemingly self-serving social integrations and the heated discussions the article provoked.
No matter which way you look at, there are a few things Google did wrong when it came to its social search rollout. SPYW searches gave an obvious preference to results from Google+ properties, though the network itself isn’t nearly popular enough for these social integrations to provide meaningful data to search users.
And although Google claimed that the perceived preference for Google+ results occurred due to the inability of Google to secure data-access contracts with either Facebook or Twitter, the “Don’t Be Evil” toolbar project demonstrated that Google did, in fact, have enough access to Facebook and Twitter data from the open web to include these results in their social results.
Another common complaint following Google’s SPYW rollout was the number of new social annotations populating the natural SERPs. While users made it clear that they’d appreciate at least some indication that members of their social networks deemed specific content items worthwhile, the addition of social tags to multiple areas of the search results felt overwhelming to many users – diminishing the value these annotations provided.
But despite these complaints, could rival engine Bing do any better?
On May 10th, 2012, Bing rolled out what it termed the “New Bing,” which incorporated a number of new social integrations and search enhancements into the Bing SERPs. Specifically, the New Bing included:
- The new “Snapshot” SERPs column,
- The new “Social Sidebar,” and
- Minimized social annotations in the traditional SERPs.
First, let’s take a look at the new Snapshot feature…
Bing’s Snapshot feature appears in the middle column of its search results pages, whenever applicable. Currently, it appears to be triggered primarily by local or commercial-related search terms (for example, restaurants, hotels or other keyword phrases that are associated with business listings or reviews). In cases where no relevant places can be found (as an example, for the keyword phrase “cats”), related search phrases are shown instead.
When place-oriented searches are conducted, the initial Snapshot appears remarkably similar to Google’s places search features (highlighted by the red box):
However, to quickly access more detail about any of the places that are referenced in the Snapshot, the New Bing enables you to hover briefly over the arrow associated with each listing (as highlighted below), causing more detailed place information to appear:
In terms of providing the necessary information for users to make decisions quickly – which is, after all, the purpose of search engines – this new Bing feature gets a big thumbs up.
Next, let’s take a look at Bing’s new Social Sidebar. The New Bing offers four separate ways to interact with social data that’s connected to your search phrase, including:
- Ask Friends on Facebook
- Friends Who Might Know
- People Who Know
- Search with Friends
Clicking on the “Ask Friends…” panel allows you to quickly post a question to your Facebook profile, along with a reference to your Bing search, enabling you to gather information from your social network related to your search query. If you have questions related to a particular search result that Bing has uncovered, clicking the link icon that appears next to each listing after activating the “Ask Friends” panel will allow you to attach the item to your Facebook post in order to collect more specific feedback.
At the same time, the New Bing searches your connected Facebook profile to identify your existing Facebook friends and others on the social network that may be able to answer your question – based on their stated “Likes.”
In the case below, a New Bing search for “Burgers San Francisco” revealed two friends who have either “liked” or lived in nearby areas, which suggests that they may be qualified to provide me with personalized advice. Bing also suggest people to whom I’m not yet connected, but are believed to be influential on the subject according to other items they’ve published publicly.
The final change that’s been implemented within the New Bing is the way in-SERP social annotations are handled.
In announcements related to the transition, Bing made very clear its intention to limit the role of social recommendations in the traditional search results, saying, “Instead of cluttering your results with social updates, we’re honoring the purity of the core web results making it easier to focus on the links you need to get things done.”
As a result, only two types of social annotations are used: an arrow that indicates an item is trending and a thumbs up sign that indicates a friend in your social network has liked a particular search result (as pictured in the following image from Danny Sullivan on Search Engine Land).
Only by placing your mouse on either icon will you see the full details of which of your friends have recommended each piece of content and where it’s been shared. As you might expect, the result is a much cleaner search listing, which – in many ways – mirrors the appearance of Google’s old, pre-SPYW search results pages.
So now, the final verdict on the question of whether Bing’s social integrations are superior to Google’s past rollouts…
Overall, there are a lot of things I like about Bing’s approach. While it’s true that Bing doesn’t have its own social network to promote, it’s still nice to see social recommendations being made from the social media sites people are actually using.
That said, there are some indications that Bing’s social algorithms aren’t as advanced as they should be. In an interesting case study posted to Search Engine Land, search expert Danny Sullivan found that the New Bing missed some key social recommendation opportunities – most notably, in his search comparison for popular television show “The New Girl”:
“Bing really falls down in the Sidebar are, where it should really shine. I follow the Facebook New Girl page, but that’s not shown. I do get the Twitter account of Zooey Deschanel, the main character of the series. But why not show me at least the Twitter account for the New Girl show itself?”
This doesn’t mean that the service doesn’t have potential – just that it still has a ways to grow yet in order to live up to its full possibilities.
At the same time, it’s incredibly refreshing to see Bing get back to providing clean SERPs as a core feature. I think a lot of people have grown weary of Google’s endless annotation approaches – especially when these integrations clearly interfere with the ability of the site to provide the most useful search results as fast as possible.
However, the key question here – as always – is whether or not Bing’s search results are good enough to steal market share away from Google. Though the New Bing rollout appears to have affected the user interface only, the quality of its SERPs still receives mixed reviews. Until the engine can get these quality concerns resolved, all the social integrations in the world won’t matter in terms of reclaiming any measurable amount of new users.