Microsoft on Wednesday showed how Facebook friends will be able to influence Bing users' search results, as part of a wide-ranging update on search that also included developments for its image, maps and mobile services.
The new Facebook features are supposed to help Bing users find more useful and reliable search results. A person who searches for the name of a musician, for example, might see that a friend has already "liked" a particular fan page about that artist.
"I believe 'social' will change search fundamentally in the way people organise 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 an event for press in San Francisco.
The new Facebook capabilities, which build on an existing partnership with the company, are being rolled out now and should be available to all users by the end of the year, said Paul Yiu, principal group program manager for Bing.
Bing now has 90 million users and its market share stands at 11.8 percent, Nadella said, citing figures from comScore. While that's still far behind Google, Bing has seen its share increase gradually every month since its launch 18 months ago, he said.
The Bing iPhone application has been downloaded 5.5 million times, according to Nadella. "We're in the top 10 list for iPhone apps in 2010," he said, adding "that's good for us to be up there with Angry Birds."
Hoping to maintain that momentum, Microsoft announced some new mobile Bing features that are being rolled out this week, including a mobile version of Streetside, which is Microsoft's take on Google StreetView.
Blaise Aguera y Arcas, the architect for Bing Maps, struggled to demonstrate the features using an iPhone and AT&T's 3G network, which is notoriously weak in San Francisco, and had to switch to Wi-Fi.
He showed how zooming in on a map transitions automatically into Streetside, just like the desktop version of Bing Maps. And while users today can only zoom in and out or pivot left and right to look up and down a street, the new mobile maps makes it easy to travel up and down a city block looking at each building in turn.
That feature is also coming to a new desktop version of Bing Maps. That application will also show panoramic photographs of building interiors and real-time bus information in cities where it is available, Aguera y Arcas said. In San Francisco, for example, some buses are fitted with GPS devices.
The new Bing Mobile also lets users check into locations with Facebook, Foursquare and Microsoft Messenger, and make reservations at OpenTable without leaving Bing. It also includes a camera application that takes a 360-degree panorama and stiches the images together just like the 360 Panorama iPhone app that costs US$0.99 in the iTunes store.
Being able to complete tasks quickly, often without leaving Bing, is a big theme for Microsoft. It sees it as a way to differentiate itself from Google, which tends to emphasize the speed and accuracy of its results, but is also adding more "in search" capabilities.
A new version of Bing Image search gets a new layout and adds infinite scrolling or a page that updates constantly with images as users scroll down -- a feature lifted from Google Image search.
A new interface for image search has "smart tabs" across the top of the results page. For example, a search for "Casablanca" has a tab that will show only image results for Casablanca lilies, another that shows Casablanca wedding dresses and another for Casablanca the city.
Derrick Connell, general manager for the Bing Product Management Group, showed other improvements in areas like destination search and entertainment. For example, a user who searches for a basketball game can now view available seats on a plan of the stadium, see what the view is like from a seat and buy a ticket, all from within Bing.
The changes, described in the Bing blog, are all part of the Bing "Fall release" and are all being rolled out starting today. Many of them have to do with the user interface and where and how information is displayed on the screen.
"The science behind placement of data is a big differentiator, we believe," Nadella said, adding that Microsoft is investing a good deal of its research dollars in visual placement.
Microsoft has its work cut out for it though. Google accounted for 66.3 percent of US searches in October, according to comScore. And while Microsoft has made some gains, its close partner, Yahoo, has been watching its share decline.
All three vendors 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 $700 million deal would give Google too much control in that market.