Yesterday, in what can only be described as a huge shot across Google's bow, Microsoft unveiled "The New Bing," a completely redesigned search interface designed to shorten the distance between searching and doing. Built on the premise that more and more people are using search to accomplish things and make decisions in the real world, Bing's goal is to make it easier to actually do stuff with what you find in your search results.
To that end, they've redesigned the search results interface to include two new columns. In addition to the standard search results column we all know and... love?... there's a snapshot column and a social column. The web results column is much the same. The snapshot and social columns are where the magic happens, as it were. These are the columns designed to provide users with a shortcut to whatever action they might want to take based on their search results, and they are where Bing has placed its answer to Google's Search Plus Your World feature.
Column One: Search Results, "What the Web Knows"
At first glance, the search results column remains largely unchanged. Described as "what the web knows," this is your standard "10 blue links" page, as Bing Senior Director Stefan Weitz called it. Yet even here, Bing has made some changes. Citing internal research, Bing notes that 68% of people "use search to try to get things done," and 66% "feel that there is an overwhelming amount of data," and 60% "wonder whether they have found the best information available for what they're trying to do."
Armed with those results, Bing engineers set out to streamline Bing's search results by "removing unnecessary links and and simplifying the results to the core set of information users are looking for." The idea is to present a cleaner, simpler set of search results more directly targeted to what users actually want to know. The goal, Weitz told Fast Company, is "to reinvent search."
For Bing, the goal of the redesign is not simply to compete with Google, but to change the way search is done. The primary goal of the new Bing is not so much to provide a list of websites that might answer your questions. Instead, Bing wants to actually find the answers for you, and present them to you in a way that is streamlined and that makes it easy for you to do what you want to do with the information you need.
Part of this desire to streamline search results came after Bing, like Google, began integrating social media (like Twitter trends) into their search results. This, according to Bing's Corporate Vice President Derrick Connell, "wasn't that relevant and was overloading users with clutter." The New Bing, with its additional columns, is designed to streamline the basic web search experience by shunting that "clutter" off to the side, where it can - Bing hopes - be more useful and less of an unnecessary distraction.
Column Two: Snapshot, "What Bing Knows"
The snapshot column is the first of the two new columns. This column provides a basic, well, snapshot of the information that's most relevant to your search. This is also the column that provides the shortcuts that allow you to do things more quickly and easily. Certain queries get more out of the snapshot column than others. If you're looking for information on hotels, movie showtimes, restaurants, and the like, then the snapshot column will be your friend. A widget will allow you to check hotel vacancies and make reservations, while integration with OpenTable does the same for restaurants. The snapshot column also provides you with basic information and reviews about what you're searching for.
Eventually, improvements to snapshot will allow show you a variety of information and offer you a wider variety of actions to take. For now, though, the focus is on "searches where Bing can determine a clear customer intent" based on the search term. For example, suppose you're curious about this obscure little movie that just came out called The Avengers. Do a Bing search for The Avengers, and the snapshot will give you showtimes and reviews for the movie. In addition to reviews, the new Bing will also tell you what your Facebook and Twitter friends are saying about The Avengers. More on that next.
Column Three: Sidebar, "What Your Friends May Know"
The final column is where Bing really has Google's Search Plus Your World in its sights. This column integrates with a variety of social networks to show you what people you know - and people you don't know - are saying about whatever you're searching for. Bing searches through a variety of social networks to bring you this information, including Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Foursquare, and LinkedIn.
There are two kinds of people whose comments on your search topic will appear: your friends, and people who know about the topic. So if you have Facebook friends who have recently liked or posted about something related to your search topic, you'll see that in the social sidebar. If you search for The Avengers, you'll see your friends' post about how awesome it was. If you search for local Mediterranean restaurants, you might see recommendations like "try the shawarma."
The other kind of people whose posts you'll see come from people who Bing believes might know something about your topic. So if you search for a restaurant, you might see tweets from a restaurant critic. If you search for the latest tech gadget, you might see tweets from a tech blogger or journalist who has recently reviewed it.
The social sidebar also allows you to ask your friends questions about your Bing searches, and the activity feed shows you live updates as your friends or those who Bing regards as knowledgable post about your search.
Interestingly, the social integration of the new Bing design appears to have been inspired in part by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. During a hackathon in February, Zuckerberg told a gathering of Facebook and Bing developers who were working on integrating Facebook with Bing's search that the should not "try to do social by building social on the side." Instead they should "build it into the experience." In a slightly ironic turn of events, Bing engineers ultimately built social into the Bing experience by quite literally building it on the side.
In addition to its usefulness for the basic task of search, there's also a chance that Bing's new redesign will impact the way certain social media members are ranked. Bing's social sidebar adds a dimension of authority to those social media accounts that are selected as being knowledgeable about a topic.
But Does It Work?
Well, that's the big question, isn't it? By and large, reviews from those who have gotten their hands on the new Bing have been pretty positive. Of course, the applicability and usefulness of the two new columns will vary based on what you're actually searching for. If, for example, you're looking for a hotel or a restaurant - the two examples used in yesterday's announcement - then they're likely to provide a lot of helpful info. On the other hand, if you're searching for something a little more abstract, then they might not be quite so helpful. For example, Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand used the new Bing to do a search for information on Penguin, Google's latest algorithm update. As you might expect, neither the snapshot nor the social sidebar returned much in the way of relevant results. Most of them related to actual penguins - the small, flightless Antarctic bird.
The Verge put together a video showing the New Bing in action. Check it out below:
The new Bing will begin rolling out in the next week or so, and should reach broad U.S. availability by early June. You can also sign up to be notified when the new Bing is ready.