Microsoft is about to releas a ‘new’ Bing which promises “Transforming Search from Finding to Doing”. It will be rollout in US in early June over the course of few weeks. There is no word if these features will be made available to the rest of the world. Microsoft calls this the most significant upgrade since the Bing launch three years ago. It may be one of the most significant changes in the online search industry.
What is so different with the new Bing this time?
The page layout is changed. The left bar where you have Related Searches, Search History and Narrow by Region is gone. Instead the page has now three columns: the search results, the snapshot and the social. Microsoft says that the search engine will return more quality results which will be less cluttered by irrelevant data. That remains to be seen, but while it is not clear how much of the engine was changed, the two new columns are interesting.
The snapshot is meant to display right there in the middle essential information, the most pertinent response to your query, packaged in a way that describe the findings from multiple angles. I don’t know how they do this because it could be that they re-packaged the old Bing with a different appearance or it may be they went deeper and changed the rational side of the Bing’s brain by adding a brand new semantic map builder. The example given by Microsoft is a classic case of a user who wants to find a hotel. Bing tries to build in the snapshot a story around this subject, so it displays a map, room rate, some links to related services, and traveller recommendations collected from various web sites. This sounds like the old Bing. However, if beneath the hood the software ‘thinks’ about the meaning of the hotel and uses a semantic graph to pull in related information, the prospects are completely different. This is how I read into what Derrick Connell, the Bing Corporate Vice President, said when he referred to a new scalable technology. Connell says that Microsoft will expand the snapshot to include more and more attributes around searched subjects. I guess that when a search command is issued, parallel searches are run automatically based on the semantic graph, even if the user doesn’t mention any of the inferred attributes. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.
The most interesting bit though is the social bar. I am very pleased to see this. My research on knowledge behaviour around adoption of innovation indicates that people rely a lot on social networks, even when they don’t call on friends for help explicitly for help or advice. When information is not searched but stumbled upon, that is a case of serendipity. This type of accidental finding has been ignored most of the time in the past, but it is increasingly obvious that it has a key role in knowledge behaviour.
Where is Microsoft going with this is not clear yet. I am not sure if this is a Facebook only feature or if it is a social aggregator. But the fact that you could ask your friends about what you are looking for combined with serendipity (the lower part of the social screen has that role) is a very interesting development.
Certainly this looks very good for Facebook. It is very good for Microsoft because it suddenly it creates a social opportunity in response to Google’s ambitions in social networks.
Microsoft did something clever here: it removes the social content from the search results going in an opposite direction from Google. I think this is a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, the relevance could be a problem if the results include your social status updates, and secondly, people are a bit off about the idea of mixing social activities with search. The reaction to Google’s decision to mix Google with Google Plus and Gmail was not enthusiastic to say the least. But if you have two separate areas that work side by side and you are the one that decides when to use the social features, it looks more appealing.
The snapshot and the social bar have the potential to change the face of online search. One hint is the appearance of ‘Like’ in the social bar. The synergy between search and social activities could take many forms here with profound consequences, because each of these two represent aspects of our persona that until now have been separated. Facebook does not have a search engine and Bing does not have a social network. On the new page they are still separated, but you can make the connection. The ‘Like’ is about your friends and their preferences. In the future other social signals could be used: location, recommendations, photos, music, etc. The possibilities are barely visible at this stage.
It is easy to think that online search consists of entering keywords on Bing or Google web pages followed by hitting the “search” button. In reality, there is a lot of search that takes place in the mind of the searcher. Part of the information behaviour, better called human information behaviour (HIB), searching plays at multiple levels: cognitive, emotional and situational. Psychology has a great role in the information behaviour. The design of information system user interface has only recently started to take into consideration the human aspects of searching and the fact that seeking information is far from being a linear process limited to the use of sequential keywords.
The quality of search is perceived as the degree in which the search engine responds to the explicit query, but this is not that simple. The user doesn’t always know which keywords to use for searching. Very often the user wants to broaden the search scope, delegate control and navigate through responses offered by the search engine to discover new information. This is a learning journey that many users prefer when the problem is not clearly defined in their mind and they feel the need to know more before they actually decide where to focus their information search moving forward.
The opposite of direct response, which is an area where traditional engines have tried to excel, is a situation where the search tends to broaden rather than focus. This divergent search is most appropriate for creative situations when users acquire new information outside their domain of expertise. Convergent search focuses on what the user knows, while the divergent search is about discovering new things, and adopt a multi-disciplinarian attitude.
Facebook is clearly in the camp of divergent search despite the obvious lack of search capabilities. In fact FB friends find a lot of information on Facebook, but not by way of convergent search and by seeking specific information. On Facebook users encounter information. With each visit, through sharing information is presented to the user in the Newsfeed in form of links and commentaries. This is not an accidental feature. This year Mark Zuckerberg announce the addition of a new and powerful feature called serendipity. It may seem innocent, but this feature is very powerful because it brings friends closer and because it has a subtle attraction that keeps users coming back to the web site. And of course, it is a key element in the Mark’s strategy to gather as much information about our habits and wants.
Of the two ways of finding information, search and encounter, the latter is one that requires the least amount of effort on behalf of the user. Couple that with the element of surprise and reward that comes in form of viewing a funny video, learning something interesting, listening to a great song or reading a captivating article, when none of this could have cross your mind without at least putting in some effort, and you get hooked. Serendipity is one of the most powerful ways of finding information you did not know you needed or wanted.
The job of search engines is difficult because it requires the user to think and make an effort to research their own information need. It is like work. That is Google and Bing. Facebook on the other hand is strong on serendipity which is fun and enjoyable and very, very social. Not only you find information, but you get to leave comments, “like” and be “liked”. On search engines, no one likes you.