Microsoft on Wednesday showed off how Facebook friends will influence Bing users' search results, as part of a wide-ranging update on search that also showcased developments in its local and image search and maps offerings.
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"I believe social will change search fundamentally in the way people organize queries, how people discover answers and maybe even answer queries," said Satya Nadella, senior vice president for R&D with Microsoft's Online Services Division, at a San Francisco press event.
Most important to begin with is how people will discover results using the social graph, he said.
Search results annotated with Facebook "likes" from people in a user's social network will be rolled out gradually and be fully available by the end of the year, according to Paul Yiu, principal group program manager for Bing, who demonstrated the new capabilities. He gave the example of searching for an exercise machine, and seeing that his friend liked an article about which kind is better.
Bing's market share has grown to 11.8 percent, and the search engine has grown continuously for the past 19 months, said Nadella. That adds up to over 90 million users, of which more than 72 percent are heavy users, he said. Meanwhile, there have been more than 5.5 million downloads of the Bing iPhone app, he said.
"We're in the top 10 list for iPhone apps in 2010," Nadella said, adding "that's good for us to be up there with Angry Birds."
In October, Microsoft changed its approach to machine learning infrastructure, moving to boosted decision trees from neural networks. This should help it hone the algorithms for specialized search, Nadella said.
The company is also investing a good deal of its research dollars in visual placement. "The science behind placement of data is a big differentiator, we believe," he added.
Among new features going live on Wednesday is a new image search interface with results organized as tiles, said Derrick Connell, general manager for the Bing Product Management Group. Visual search has doubled or tripled in volume over the past six months, he said. The new interface also features smart tabs -- for example, a search for "Casablanca" might return results for Casablanca wedding dresses or Casablanca lilies, and the results are accordingly grouped onto tabs.
Connell also disclosed a number of small improvements in areas like destination search and entertainment. For example, users who bring up a listing for a basketball game now will be able to buy tickets within Bing, view where the seat is on a plan of the arena, and see the view from that seat.
Microsoft has gained some ground since it launched Bing 18 months ago, but Google is still way in front. Google accounted for 66.3 percent of U.S. searches in October, compared to 16.5 percent for Yahoo and 11.5 percent for Microsoft, according to figures from comScore.
That was a slight improvement from a year ago for both Microsoft and Google, while Yahoo's share has been in decline. Microsoft and Yahoo have now pooled their efforts in search, with Yahoo using Bing to provide its results as of this past August.
Meanwhile, the search giants are adding features almost every week to help them keep hold of their users. Last week, Google launched a real-time service that presents a constantly updated stream of results from Facebook, Twitter and other sources.
The companies are also fighting in the courts. Microsoft joined a group this week that is trying to stop Google from buying ITA Software, which makes the technology used by Microsoft and other Google rivals to provide air travel search results. The competitors complain the US$700 million deal would give Google too much control in that market.