If you’ve ever cleaned off a cluttered desk, replacing messy stacks of paper with framed photos of people who really matter, you have a rough idea of what Microsoft did with its new Bing search engine this week. Gone are the distracting, multicolored search results. Gone are the lists of recently searched terms that you never looked at anyway. Gone are the search results mingled with Facebook “likes.”
What’s left? A lot of white space, which creates a calmer environment for reading and digesting information. A new middle column, which Microsoft calls Snapshot, displays task-oriented content to help people do things like making restaurant reservations, getting directions or seeing movie times. And Bing’s most unusual new feature is a flush-right column called Sidebar designed to automatically surface names of relevant Facebook friends and others around the Web who could best help you with a specific query.
The new Bing is automatically available to about 20% of users starting Tuesday. If you’re not one of the 20%, you can see the new interface and Sidebar on Bing.com/new. By June 1, all features will be automatically available to everyone.
I’ve had access to this revamped Bing for the past week, and its prospects are promising. It feels cleaner and clearer. Sidebar’s integrated social knowledge of friends linked to Bing through a person’s Facebook account—or people from Twitter and blogs who are suggested by Bing—can turn the solitude of Web searching into a group activity. For example, a search for Napa Valley restaurants smartly brings up the name of a friend who recently posted a photo album from Napa, a colleague who lists Napa Valley as his hometown as well as a well-known blogger who reviews restaurants in that area. Sidebar maintains a neat list of your queries and the responses, saving you the trouble of hunting through past Facebook posts.
Compared with the way Google integrated Google+ “personal results” with regular search results—which ruffled a lot of feathers—Sidebar is more sophisticated.
But Bing’s Sidebar faces a challenge: People aren’t used to searching like this.
As fun as it is to poll people—even specifically suggested people—in queries, we usually search alone. Many of the things I type into Bing are quick ask-a-question-get-an-answer searches, and Sidebar’s format requires waiting for someone’s response. It’s possible that it just takes time to adjust to this new way of searching, but I’m comfortable with the Web sources that I already know and trust. (No offense, Facebook friends.)
Additional partners, including LinkedIn, Foursquare and Quora, will eventually be included to help with queries in Bing’s Sidebar. Some of these will work later this summer. For now, Twitter provides the biggest source of people from around the Web who might know the answer to your query.
Bing will continue to make improvements, according to Stefan Weitz, senior director of Bing search. By late June or early July, you’ll be able to tag friends in queries even if Bing doesn’t suggest those people as relevant to a query. This would have helped me when I searched for restaurants in Boston, where my foodie sister has lived for 11 years, though she didn’t automatically appear as a suggested source. Then again, when I searched for a Mexican restaurant in Kirkland, Wash., called Cactus, a friend who “liked” another Mexican restaurant in nearby Seattle popped up in my Sidebar.
I didn’t realize this friend had ever visited Seattle or that he enjoyed one of Seattle’s Mexican restaurants enough to “like” it on Facebook. These helpful, serendipitous experiences may be enough to keep people using the Bing Sidebar.
Bing’s Sidebar queries currently have a clumsy way of working with Facebook. If I query three people who are auto-suggested as friends who might know the answer to my question, the query only shows up on my Facebook page, not on the pages of people who were questioned. They must visit my Facebook page to see responses, an extra step that may discourage ongoing conversations. An Activity feed in the Bing Sidebar shows all Facebok friends’ query activity, but people look at Facebook more often.
The middle column of the rebuilt Bing, called Snapshot, doesn’t always display content. When it does, it is geared toward helping people accomplish specific tasks, like booking a hotel room or restaurant table. In a search for the Oval Room, a Washington, D.C., restaurant, Snapshot showed a map of its location, four ratings from websites like TripAdvisor, hours of operation and a link to OpenTable for making a reservation.
A shrunk-down version of this new Bing—including its cleaner look, Snapshot and Sidebar—will be available this week to run on smartphones including Windows Phone, Apple’s iPhone, Android phones and RIM’s BlackBerrys. Microsoft says it will work on tablets by early July.
The new Bing is sure to get people talking—and its Sidebar is likely to tell you something you didn’t know about a friend that may or may not help you make a decision. But until it gets more accurate and more partners, I’ll use Sidebar like a side dish: It won’t make a big impact on my overall search experience.
Write to Katie at email@example.com.