But Microsoft has an even bigger bet on Facebook through an alliance between its Bing search engine and the social network. And that partnership is about to get even deeper.
On Thursday, Microsoft introduced a set of changes to Bing that it says will improve searches by tapping into the expertise of friends on Facebook and other social networks. The company hopes to mine people’s online social connections to provide more personal search results for everything from hotel searches in Hawaii to movie recommendations.
For example, if you are logged into your Facebook page through Bing, and you search for “best hotels in Maui,” you will get results with pictures of friends who have shared some affinity for Maui before on Facebook, whether by listing it as their hometown in their Facebook profile, liking the island on Facebook or posting photos from a previous Maui vacation.
“This is a fundamentally different way to look at search,” Qi Lu, president of Microsoft’s online services division, said in a recent interview in a high-rise building here, a few miles from its main campus, where its Internet operations are based.
The new version of Bing is the biggest overhaul to the search engine since Microsoft introduced it three years ago. It is the result of a continual conversation at the company about how to make Bing a more effective competitor to that other search engine — Google — and try to stem its considerable losses. In its last fiscal year, Microsoft reported operating losses from its online services division of $2.6 billion.
Strengthening the ties between Bing and Facebook is also another sign of how Microsoft and Facebook are working together to provide a counterbalance to their common adversary, Google. While Google is by far the dominant player in the Internet search business, it also competes with Microsoft in productivity applications and with Facebook through its Google Plus social network.
And like Microsoft, Google this year began to integrate data from its social network into its search results through an initiative it calls “search, plus your world.”
Google declined to comment for this article.
The alliance between Facebook and Microsoft, so far, has barely caused a dent in Google. The two companies first announced a plan to work together on what they called “social search” in late 2010, and a bit later began to pepper Bing search results with a limited amount of data it began to pull from Facebook.
If a person searched for the movie “The Avengers,” for example, Bing would annotate the results to indicate whether the searcher’s Facebook friends had “liked” any of the Web pages found in that search previously on the social network.
Microsoft executives said that approach, on its own, did not have much success, partly because it cluttered the display of search results. “It was a good experiment, but it wasn’t working in the way we expected,” said Derrick Connell, a corporate vice president of Bing program management.
The new Bing has a much cleaner design that tucks all of the social search results away into a sidebar on the Bing search results pages, where they are now clearly distinct from the traditional Bing search results on the left side of the screen.
But the revamping also goes much further in the kind of information it picks up from Facebook.
For the search for “best hotels in Maui,” for example, the results will also allow searchers to post questions about favorite hotels to the friends with Maui expertise that Bing has identified, without leaving the Bing search results page.
Microsoft executives say they will show only data from Facebook friends’ pages that could be seen by going directly to the pages.
“Bing is taking a thoughtful approach to giving people the option to call on their friends as part of the search experience,” Ethan Beard, director of platform partnerships at Facebook, said.
Bing will also suggest other people it deems to be “influential” on a particular search topic by scouring more public social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn and Quora.