At long last, Facebook’s social data is coming to search in a big way. Bing is now making use of it to show new “Liked By Your Friends” matches and Facebook-powered people search results. The move offers a huge amount of promise, and perhaps gives Bing a edge that Google can’t quickly replicate. But at the moment, this is no Google-killer. You might not even see the new features appear that often. Think baby steps, and let’s see what’s been born today to proud parents Bing and Facebook.
Finally, Facebook’s Social Data Meets Search
Over the past few years, some pundits have have viewed Facebook’s social information as the kryptonite that would bring SuperGoogle to its knees. By knowing who your friends are, Facebook would somehow produce a better search engine. Or perhaps this would happen because Facebook would “trap” all the best content within its walled garden. Or, or, or …. the theories came. But nothing happened.
Most recently, some posted that after Facebook rolled out “Like” buttons earlier this year, the company would be able to know all the best content across the web, in a way that Google could never do. This would finally be what put Facebook in the search game. Google primarily counts links to rank pages. Facebook would counts likes, and those likes would be more trustworthy data.
At last, we have a prediction that’s coming true — sort of. Facebook Like data is now being used to improve search results, but not in the way that some anticipated. It’s also not really being done at Facebook itself but rather at Bing. Moreover, it currently doesn’t produce anything near to a generational leap in search, not yet. And should it get there, potentially Google could still do the same.
Facebook Likes, Meet Bing
Enough of the preamble! With expectations hopefully reset to a reasonable level, let’s look more closely at the “Liked By Your Friends” feature first (I’ll also call this the Like Section, and Bing refers to it as Liked Results). Then we’ll look at the , then the People Search feature after that (which Bing calls Facebook Profile Search) .
For any of this to work, you have to connect Bing to your Facebook account, something I’ll cover more at the end of this piece. Assuming you’ve connected Bing to Facebook, sometimes when you search, you’ll see a new Liked By Your Friends section within your search results. Here’s an example, from a search for rally to restore sanity:
The arrow points to the new section. In it, I’m shown two links that are relevant to my search, which have been “Liked” by people I’m friends with on Facebook.
Here’s another example, this time for a search on gap logo:
The section above appeared midway within the regular search results, similar to the first example I showed. Again, the section gave me two links, articles relating to the recent Gap logo debacle. However, the box can move around. I’ve found it near the bottom of the page on some searches.
In both cases, it’s nice seeing what my friends have shared or enjoyed, especially if it’s information that wasn’t already showing up in the search results. I think the appearance could be much better. I’d actually like to see the titles and URLs similar to regular results, along with descriptions. But perhaps this will change.
Where Have All The Likes Gone?
The concept sounds great. Here are sites relevant to my search that my friends, people that I presumably trust, are effectively recommending to me. What’s not to like?
For one, it’s hard to get the Liked Results to appear. Maybe it’s that I have no friends who have tagged content that’s related to my searches. Maybe Bing sets a really high relevancy bar for when they show it. But after running more than 40 searches, fewer than 10 gave me things that my friends liked.
Consider this set of searches I did:
- best gps
- las vegas hotels
- washing machines
- best twitter client
- screen protectors
- pumpkin carving stencils
- star wars pumpkins
- iphone 4 cases
- copy music to android
These are all searches where I’d especially like to see what my friends like. These are the types of questions that you typically see people put to their social networks on Facebook or Twitter in the form of a question: “Hey, anyone know what’s the best dishwasher to buy?” But none of my 1,600 friends — or more accurately, 1,600 people I’ve friended on Facebook — seem to have liked content related to these topics.
Here’s another set of searches I conducted:
- 30 rock
- don’t ask don’t tell
- christine o’donnell
Among those 1,600 people I’ve friended are a small but significant number who really are my friends in the traditional sense, people that I’ve known personally in various ways. In that list above, I’d have expected some of them to have liked content on these topics. 30 Rock and Caprica are TV shows that my friends would like. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a policy they very much want to see repealed. Christine O’Donnell is a political candidate that they find bemusing, to say the least.
None of these triggered Liked Results for me in Bing. That was supriing. Even more so was discovering that even within Facebook, my friends were coming up short for me. I know at least three good friends who love Caprica. But none of them have shared any external content on Facebook that’s related to Caprica:
Sharing isn’t the same as liking. It’s a little more work, and there’s no way for me to do a “Liked By” search on Facebook. Maybe friends have liked content related to Caprica and my other topics on Facebook, and I just can’t tell. But still, Bing’s new feature should have told me.
My takeaway is that despite those milllions of Facebook Like buttons out there — which I know do get pushed — there’s a lot that simply of content that isn’t being liked. And if it’s not liked, then it doesn’t help with Bing’s new Liked Results.
Heck, even some friends have shared things — and others almost certainly liked them — they might now show. Here’s a search on Facebook for Christine O’Donnell, as it appears for me:
That arrow point to external content that’s been shared and liked enough that Facebook is suggesting it, something it has been doing in search results and suggestions there since June and September, respectively. But the same search at Bing doesn’t bring it up in a Liked Results section.
Nice When It Works
Many of those I’ve friended are involved with search or search marketing. Perhaps that’s one reason why in searches like these, I did get like information:
- search engines
- google tv
- search engine land
- search engine news
Here, the likes were interesting and potentially useful. For example, in a search on Google TV:
I received two links from sources that I know, links that otherwise would not have appeared on the page. That was nice. It added more variety and interest to the page overall. But they weren’t essential. There was plenty else in the search results to satisfy me.
That’s the key thing to me. I can see the great potential here. If Liked Results begin showing more often — and add truly unique content to a page — then this becomes a compelling feature that might pull people over to Bing more often. But for the moment, it’s just a start, not a done deal.
Baby Steps, Baby Steps!
Of course, both Bing and Facebook know this is just the start. Facebook chief technical officer Bret Taylor talked to me yesterday about this being a “1.0″ move toward bringing Facebook’s social signals into the search mix, a start toward putting human trust into the mix.
“The most relevant signal you could have is a recommendation from someone you know,” Taylor said. “To know that one of those links is endorsed … it could prevent you from clicking through to a page of spam … it’s a really, really meaningful and positive change to the search experience.”
Taylor stressed that in particular, today’s change was less about trying to reorganize what a search engine lists using social information and much more about using that social information to better flag results that people can trust.
“This isn’t about reranking the 10 results but the personal connection, their profile [of your friends] next to the search results. That type of thing is a meaningful, significant step change,” he said.
What This Is Not
The reranking aspect is one of several points worth stressing about what the partnership does not do.
Outside the Liked Results, Facebook’s data is not being used to reshape the “regular” results, the listings found from crawling the web. Rather, traditional ranking factors such as the content on the pages and how people link to them is used — similar to what Google does.
(Side note: Google’s long claimed that over 200 factors are used to rank its search results. Today, Bing says it uses 1,000 signals. Expect Google’s claim to rise shortly).
Like Results are also unique to each person. What I get depends upon who my friends are. Someone else, with a different set of friends, will see different links suggested.
This is also not the beginning of a push for Facebook to have its own search engine. Taylor stressed several times to me that Facebook isn’t focused on offering general purpose search In fact, most people are not even trying to do general searches from Facebook, he said.
“That’s not where most web search happens. Most of the focus on Facebook [by people who search there] is looking up people you know,” Taylor said. “We’re excited about bringing this data to where most of the people are searching.”
The SEO Perspective
This is also not another “SEO is dead” moment. Most of the results on Bing aren’t influenced by like data. Meanwhile, many pages that get liked may get found via traditional search, so SEO remains important.
Certainly, it’s another step toward the personalization of search results that’s already been happening over the past few years, as well as more humanization of them (see Search 4.0: Social Search Engines & Putting Humans Back In Search for more about this). But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, personalization has to start somewhere, with core “unrefined” results. SEO can help position you better on the starting line.
Could we see liked data worked into the overall ranking algorithm as one of those 200 or 1,000 signals? It’s not yet happening at Bing, but certainly it could come. Almost certainly, it’ll face some gaming, just as links have been gamed. But when likes from only your friends are used, it reduces the appeal of gaming. A page with 1 million likes doesn’t have much of an impact on your results, if none of your friends have liked it — and only friend likes are counted.
One thing is certain. If you haven’t been paying attention to Facebook like buttons, get moving. There’s already some direct benefit in search, and chances are this will grow.
Our How To Put The Facebook “Like” Button On A Site story is a good starting place. Beyond the like button, the Facebook Open Graph offers some interesting possibilities, as our Blast Open The Doors Via Facebook’s Open Graph For Local SEO story this week explored.
What About Google?
Of course, while most people are searching more at Bing than Facebook, even more of them are searching at Google — and Facebook’s not bringing the information there. Why not?
“I can’t speak to the terms of relationships with partners. We have a deep partnership with Microsoft and Bing. The reason we are working with them is a deep respect with the team there. We felt like we were aligned with their vision,” Taylor said.
Unsaid are a variety of reason why Google is passed over. Microsoft owns a small stake in Facebook. Microsoft has an existing deal on search with Facebook, and rumors were last month from AllThingsD that it would be expanded similar to what we see today. Google is potentially a much bigger threat on the adverting front to Facebook. Google would love to build or buy its own Facebook-killler.
Potentially, Google should be able to get all the same information that Bing gets. After all, Facebook’s Open Graph, launched earlier this year, would seem to place information such as Likes out in the public domain for use by anyone.
In reality, Google has suggested that Facebook is placing restrictions on its use, though despite these, Google will find “other ways” to get the information, if necessary. Google CEO Eric Schmidt spoke about this last month.
After talking with Taylor, another issue came up. While Google or anyone can access public social data from Facebook, Facebook’s deal with Bing is allowing it much better, faster and “special” access to the information. It’s similar to the situation with Twitter, where it had a “firehose” of data that initially wasn’t available to everyone but which was essentially for those who wanted to produce timely search. Facebook, it seems, has a firehose of Like data that Bing gets access to but Google does not.
I also checked with long-time Facebook watcher Nick O’Neil of All Facebook to get his read on the situation. Key issue? While the Open Graph data is out there, there’s no stream you can tap into, no firehose of data. You have to issue queries to get it. That also means to me that Google, because it processing so many search, would probably overtax the system if it tried tapping into it.
So is Google screwed or not? That remains to be seen. As said, right now the like data as used by Bing is far from a killer feature. Should it turn out to be, I’d expect Google to ramp up the pressure so that the data should be fully “freed” to them and others — and perhaps strike a paid deal for access to it, in the way Google pays Twitter for its data.
However, it could also be that even without the data, Google has other ways to effectively bring “Like-style” data into the mix. From an aggregate level, it has many ways — should it want — to know what people across the web like based on where they go, ways that range from its toolbar usage to data that flow back from ads and analytics code installed on many sites.
Postscript: Our Facebook On Social Search: ‘We Want To Work With Everybody’ story from Greg Sterling out of today’s press conference covers how while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he wants to include everybody, when it comes to search, his CTO Bret Taylor says the company wouldn’t work with other partners any time soon, not until Facebook feels it has search done right with Bing.
Also, I’ve had a chance to talk with Google. They had no particular comment other than “we welcome competition” and that social is important but has to be taken into account with many other important factors. It had no further comment or clarification about Schmidt’s earlier comment about wanting Facebook’s data and finding a way to get it.
Here are the formal statements Google also emailed:
“We welcome competition that helps deliver useful information to users and expands user choice. Having great competitors is a huge benefit to us and everyone in the search space—it makes us all work harder, and at the end of the day our users benefit from that.”
“Google is about getting people all the information they need, to learn and make better choices in their lives. We believe that what you need isn’t limited to any one kind of information, a person or place — it’s limitless, and we make sure you can find all of it.”
People Search, Powered By Facebook
Enough about all the Liked Results! With 500 million users at Facebook, it is, as Taylor said earlier, an excellent place to seek people. As part of today’s news, you can find people on Facebook via Bing. For example, here’s a search on my name:
The arrow points at a new “People on Facebook” box that appears, listing those people that Facebook thinks are a close match to the person I’m looking for. I like the “That’s you!” description for my own listing. As I’m logged into Facebook via Bing, it knows who I am.
As with the Liked Results section, the people results can move around. The example above shows it in the middle of the results, but I’ve also seen it at the top.
Descriptions about people listed also change, based on your relationship to them in Facebook. In the example above, I’m not friends with any of those shown, but I am told how many mutual friends we have, along with the ability to friend them.
Below, here’s Mike Arrington from TechCrunch listed:
Because he’s my friend (thanks, Mike), Arrington is listed as “Your friend” along with an option to message him.
All the people results shown will be customized for you and your relationships on Facebook, Bing and Facebook say. You’ll be shown those who are the closest match for any name — and the closest relationship to you, first. After that, the service will look more broadly.
As with the Liked Results, I found people search kind of hit and miss. For example, I searched for both “Chris Cox” and “Chris Anderson,” to see what I’d get. In both cases, there are challenges that a good people search feature would ideally solve.
There are at least two prominent Chris Coxes out there — Facebook’s own Chris Cox, who is vice president of product. There’s also former US Securities & Exchange Commission chair Chris Cox. The new Bing people search listed neither of them.
Similarly, there are at least two prominent Chris Andersons. One the editor of Wired magazine. The other is the curator of the TED conference series. Neither of them were listed in Bing’s people search.
Meanwhile, over at Google, I do get Google Profile Results (Google’s own flavor of people search) in both cases, like this one for a search on Chris Anderson:
The problem is, that section doesn’t list the Chris Andersons — or the Chris Coxes — that I’m after. That’s because unless someone specifically makes a profile page for themselves, Google has nothing to show. None of these people have done that. But I have, and in my case, it works well:
I haven’t seen figures on how many profiles Google has registered recently, but Facebook should far outdistance these. That should give Bing a compelling feature, if the people search results are made to trigger more often. But then again, it might also be something that Google can pull from Facebook’s public data.
The Facebook Connection, Privacy & How Do I Get It
Bing becomes the latest site to make use of Facebook Instant Personalization. That means if you’re logged into Facebook, when you arrive at Bing, you should see a message telling you that it is going to personalize your experience based on your Facebook profile. If you’re not seeing this yet, it’s still rolling out in the US today, then it will be coming to other counties i the coming months.
I’m happy to hear from Bing that unlike with some other sites, Instant Personalization is opt-in, not opt-out, at Bing. I was told via email:
When Bing shows a user the notification, none of the social features are working – so Bing notifies and gives an option to say “No Thanks” before any results are personalized. This notification will show up for the first bunch of sessions, so you have many opportunities to click on the “No Thanks” link or the “Learn More” link (which also has instructions for how to disable the features)
Postscript: I’m double-checking on this and might not be as happy as I was. At first, I interpreted this to mean that if a person did not choose “Yes” or “No,” it wouldn’t be switched on (the presumably is also a “close” button for the notification). Instead, I think the default is that you’ll be opted-in unless you deliberately choose no. If so, I’d prefer that it didn’t happen unless you chose yes.
Postscript 2: OK, officially not as happy. It is opt-out, not opt-in. Here’s the email I was sent:
The first five times a search is performed, users will see a notification window at the top of the screen allowing them to opt out of the social features or to get more information. After five sessions, users who want to turn the features off can do so from inside Facebook’s privacy settings by going here. In addition, clicking the Facebook icon in the top right corner of the Bing search results will allow users to learn more about the features at any time, including detailed instructions on how to disable them.
Bing works perfectly fine without Facebook, and both companies stressed to me that using Facebook personalization is totally optional. In short, if it weirds you out, don’t use it. Otherwise, try it, and you might be surprised.
Obviously, to personalize your Bing experience, Facebook is sending some of your information to Bing. But what’s Facebook getting back? Is there a history of what you’ve searched on being built there? No, says Bing:
For people search queries, Bing sends the name (other words are stripped out of the query) so that Facebook can return the right profile results. This data is deleted in 24 hours or less.
No other query data is passed to Facebook (meaning if you did a query for Toyota Prius, and we enhanced those answers with some Facebook information from your friends, Facebook has no idea that you queried for Toyota Prius).
As a reminder, Google personalizes all search requests, whether or not you are logged into Google, and it keeps that data for 180 days or longer, depending on how exactly you are interacting with the service (see Google Now Personalizes Everyone’s Search Results for more about this). Users can always opt out and destroy any data that Google retains.
Buckle Up! This Could Be Fun
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to bring expectations back down to earth, because too often I’ve found some pundits get crazy ideas of how Facebook is going to reshape search. I’ve also spent a lot of time doing a reality check on the promise of what the Bing-Facebook partnership may mean versus the current baby steps reality.
But make no mistake. I like this. I like it a lot.
I first got a look at the implementation about a month ago, and it immediately brought a smile to my face. It was a cute baby! I wanted to play with it more. I could see the potential, if done right. Back in 2008, it seemed as if Yahoo was going to do something similar by leveraging bookmark data from its Delicious site. That never really got off the ground. Now it’s second chance time.
Similarly, I had the same exact feeling when I got a look at Google Social Search before it was released to the public last October. I wanted it. I couldn’t wait for it to come out. I think seeing your actual friends in your search results does deliver on that promise of them making the results more trustworthy or maybe, just more human.
I’m going to come back with a separate piece looking at Google Social Search versus today’s Liked Results on Bing. There are interesting strengths and weaknesses they both have as they tackle the same problem. In the meantime, read more about Google Social Search in our past in-depth coverage:
- Google Social Search Launches, Gives Results From Your Trusted “Social Circle”
- Google Social Search Goes Live, Adds New Features
Also, I’ll also come back to revisit the confusing state of Bing Social Search, which is really more a real time search service like Google Realtime Search. Social and realtime are often confused, and I’ll try to clarify things more.
In general, Google Social Search has been a disappointment since it came out. It’s a inconsistent experience, for me. I never know when it’s going to appear, so much so that it’s easy to forget it exists. Part of that can also be down to me. If I’m not logged in, it doesn’t display. But part of it is down to Google — for one thing, there’s no dedicated social search page.
Similarly, playing with Bing’s new Facebook features, the inconsistency of when I would get Liked Results is probably the biggest disappointment for me. I don’t want to hope it shows up. I want to have it on demand!
Currently, there’s no dedicated tool that allows you to do just Facebook Like searches at Bing, nor even at Facebook. Facebook’s Taylor tells me there are no immediate plans to change things at his service. People there seem to want information in context — IE, what you like should be shown in the context of your news feed. That’s the focus, improve visibility through discovery, things that just pop up and surprise you, not search where you go out to hunt things down on demand.
How about a standalone Facebook Like search at Bing? “That’s a pretty good area of direction,” said Sean Suchter, general manager of Microsoft’s Search Technology Center.
Here’s hoping that comes soon, and here’s to watching as the baby steps of Bing’s social integration of Facebook move to walking and then running.
More? You can’t handle the more! OK, Bing has two official blog posts out, along with a dedicated introductory page for searchers:
- Bing “Likes” Facebook intro page
- New Signals in Search: The Bing Social Layer
- Bing Gets More Social with Facebook
We also have other stories on today’s news:
- Live From Today’s Bing/Facebook Announcement: Color from today’s press conference, with quotes from Bing executives along with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who attended.
- Facebook On Social Search: ‘We Want To Work With Everybody’: While Zuckerberg said this, his CTO Bret Taylor said if Google were to ask tomorrow, Facebook wouldn’t do this with them or others until it feels things have been done right with Bing.
For coverage from blogs around the web, see here on Techmeme.