Google may be wiping the sting of Microsoft and Facebook's deepened integration from its eyes, but analysts are calling the move a major step in a social search sector that has failed to blossom.
Microsoft on Oct. 13 said it will soon begin indexing Facebook user profiles to surface contacts that are relevant to the searcher. The company is also adding Liked Results, displaying the Websites and links "liked" by a Facebook user's friends.
For example, a user searching for a restaurant may see comments from his or her Facebook friends who went to that restaurant and liked it.
This recommendation is a strong social signal and one that Google failed to provide with its own Google Social Search earlier this year.
In that search feature, Google leverages users' "social circles" to cull results that include those that the search user's friends have generated in blog posts and other written content online.
But this pales in comparison to the direct social signals Bing is enabling by including Facebook's Liked Results.
One of the biggest challenges for Web search businesses is competing for users' time with Facebook, as it has gone through its period of meteoric growth, explained IDC analyst Hadley Reynolds.
"By being able to bring data from Facebook into relevance calculations to help make search results more meaningful and adding interface elements that make the search experience apparently 'intelligent' about a searcher's social connections, the search engines can leverage the social info they lacked to keep people on their sites longer, with more exposure to ad inventory and the business it generates," Reynolds told eWEEK.
Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray curbed the enthusiasm by noting that Bing's new functionality will be welcomed by its users but may affect a minority of searches that they conduct.
For example, Ray noted that if he searches for car insurance, Bing can only return results from Facebook if his friends have "liked" something related to auto insurance. Simply, it will take time for Bing to build up its database of social signals.
Moreover, Ray said one could argue that people may not get terrific value from knowing what their friends liked because people click "like" buttons for anything from true advocacy to a desire to get discounts, win prizes or play a game.
"But Microsoft has taken care to note this new social search functionality is 'a starting point,' and it is just that-a first step toward making search more useful, personalized and relevant using the searcher's social graphs. As more people collect, post, share and add more 'likes' and social content, the value of social search will improve," Ray said.
So, too, will Bing's database of intentions. And if Bing builds that up before Google, we may in some ways reset the search engine race at zero and start fresh.
Bing, whose search share is 11 percent, won't begin eating Google's lunch right away, but Liked Results and profile search make for a nice start.
More importantly, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that he viewed Microsoft as a "scrappy startup" hungry to excel in social search. With friends like Facebook, Bing has a shot.