Microsoft today previewed a new version of its Bing search engine, with elements including a “social sidebar” that lets users quickly tap the knowledge of their Facebook friends for advice and information related to a search — getting new insights on everything from restaurants to travel spots.
The new sidebar will also work in conjunction with other social networks, including Twitter, Google Plus and Quora, to help Bing users find experts in particular subjects.
Microsoft executives are showing the new interface at a conference this morning, currently under way and available for viewing via webcast.
“For the first time we enable information to naturally flow across search to social networks via people,” said Qi Lu, the president of Microsoft’s Online Services Division, during the event. “This is fundamentally a natural coherent way to make people an integral part of the search experience.”
Microsoft Bing has been making gains in the U.S. search market, with about 15 percent market share — but Google still reigns with more than 66 percent market share. Microsoft’s search partner, Yahoo, has been experiencing declines and was surpassed by Bing in recent months as the No. 2 player in the U.S.market.
Bing’s new design divides the search results page into three columns, with ads (sponsored results) and organic search results in one column; a “snapshot” preview pane to the right of that, which also includes sponsored results toward the bottom of the column; and the social sidebar in the right-hand column.
Any new approach that rearranges the content on a search results page is risky, as Google learned earlier this year when the integration of Google+ social network was criticized for reducing the quality of its results. However, by shifting the social integration to the sidebar, Microsoft believes it has found a better approach.
From a business perspective, changing the content around sponsored links is also risky, with the potential to reduce Bing’s revenue from advertising. But the company says it conducted extensive testing of the design. Microsoft says it also cleaned up the results page, reduced the total number of colors, and took other steps to make the page more simple. The company says the reslts page is already performing better in the metrics it tracks most closely.
As of this morning, the changes aren’t yet live, but visitors to the Bing home page are prompted to sign up for future access to the preview.