Microsoft Bing revamp spotlights interactive social sidebar

Three-column interface also includes a 'snapshot' for more direct interaction with products and places

Bing will soon include a search interface that offers social search results in a separate column to the right of the returned links, Microsoft said on Thursday.

During a press demonstration at Microsoft's San Francisco offices, Bing representatives described the new interface, which will shortly move from private to public beta, as an attempt to offer more direct interaction with "entities" and people.

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"We're moving beyond the pages into entities. Those entities are people, places, things, and their relationships," said Qi Lu, Microsoft's president of online services.

Using the new interface, query results for seafood restaurants in San Francisco, for example, include a gray column along the side that displays a "people you know who may know" section, with content on the subject shared by the searcher's social network connections, and a "people who know" section that highlights experts on the query topic across social networks.

"In the real world that's how it works: We use search, then we talk to people," Lu said.

The social sidebar integrates with Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. The company expects to bring in LinkedIn, Quora, and Foursquare as well. The user can interact on Facebook directly from the social sidebar. For instance, a user can post a question about a hotel and tag a friend who may have commented on it. The resulting Facebook posts include a link back to Bing's search page. Twitter interactions take the user to a Twitter interface, the company said.

A center "snapshot" column permits the user to interact with businesses from the search page. If the user searching for seafood restaurants hovers on a link to a particular restaurant, the column pops up, offering a map, available reservations, and links to reviews. Integration with OpenTable makes it possible to make reservations without leaving the search page.

Bing's approach to social search is in stark contrast to Google's, which brings social results into the same list with traditional algorithmic results. The Bing interface previewed Thursday separated social content into a separate column with a background of a different color.

"You've started to see social be injected into the purity of the Web results, and nobody likes that," said Derrick Connell, vice president of program management at Microsoft.

The "people who know" section of the sidebar will explicitly rank people by their expertise in a particular area. Company representatives repeated several times how difficult a task that is, but emphasized that the social content will continue to improve over time.

"The experience won't be perfect, but the most important thing is that we make the leap and then the feedback cycle begins," Lu said.

It is also unclear how well the interface will work on a smartphone. The company previewed a "stacked" display of the links, snapshot and social sidebar for a mobile screen, but indicated that it expected to move to an interface that relies more on swiping.

Microsoft officials did not give a timeframe for the public beta release of the new interface, saying that it would be available "very soon."

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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