Microsoft is making yet another attempt to deeply integrate Facebook into its Bing search experience as a way to gain some ground on archrival Google.
Today, the software giant introduced an update to Bing, adding a new column to search results that features Facebook friends who might have some insight into the query. The sidebar, set off from the white Bing page in gray, lists friends who, for example, might be able to help with a search about diving spots in Costa Rica because they shared photos from a trip to that country on Facebook.
"This notion of a query and Web results can become a conversation with your friends," said Adam Sohn, general manager of Bing.
Web surfers can request access the new feature, before it rolls out broadly, at www.bing.com/new. Microsoft will dole that out in the coming weeks. The main Bing site will roll out the deeper Facebook integration to all users this summer.
Bringing social networking to search has become something of a holy grail for the Web. One problem with traditional search is that users often have a hard time figure out which sources are most trusted. Having friends guide them removes that uncertainty.
"Bing is leading us down a really exciting path," Ethan Beard , director of platform partnership at Facebook, said during a press conference today. "Bing has been really thoughtful, keeping integrity of the core search page and giving you alternatives to reach out to people who matter to you."
Of course, Microsoft isn't alone in trying to marry social with search. Google launched its Google+ social network to address the same issue. But Google+'s reported 170 million users pales in comparison to Facebook's 900 million users in size and, seemingly, in activity as well. That's why Microsoft is keen to tap into Facebook's massive user network.
Microsoft cleaned up Bing in advance of the new Facebook integration last week, removing much of the clutter that had accumulated with various tweaks to the service over time. The new look features a three-column design. The largest column, which covers the left half of the page, features the familiar ten blue links that users have come to expect from Web search.
The center column is something Microsoft is calling Snapshot. There, Bing offers information and services related to specific searches, giving users the ability to take actions directly from search results. So if search results include restaurants, for example, the Snapshot column might include reviews as well as the ability to reserve a table at a specific spot.
But the column that Microsoft most believes will win over new users is the one on the right that features Facebook friends. Microsoft engineers have created technology to index data from Facebook and then map it to individual user's search queries. It only works when users are signed into Facebook.
Once logged in, the column on the right finds friends that might know something about a specific query, then lets users ask those friends for guidance. A search for Seattle restaurants, for example, will populate the top section of the column, under the heading "Friends Who Might Know," with Facebook pals who live in Seattle. At the top of that list will be those who have "liked" particular Seattle restaurants on Facebook.
Searchers can connect with those users over Facebook directly from the Bing page. All they need to do is click on the specific buddy's name that shows up in the right column and a box open in which they can type a question directly to that friend.
Microsoft is also hoping that integrating more deeply with Facebook generates more Bing searches. One search might lead to another in Bing as the conversations between users gets going.
"It's possible that this has a virality to it that drives this in a really interesting way," Sohn said. "Best case scenario: This could really turbocharge our growth. That's the magic of Facebook."
Microsoft's also add a few other social networking tools to the right column. Below the "Friends Who Might Know" section is one called "People Who Know." There, results are generated from public posts on services such as Twitter and even Google+. So Roger Ebert's Twitter feed, for example, might show up in a query for movies. Searchers can then check out those tweets and follow those experts.
This isn't the first time Microsoft has worked at baking Facebook into Bing. The software giant took its first stab at social search in October 2010, when it enabled searchers to see when their Facebook friends have "liked" a Web page. A year ago, Microsoft tweaked the search algorithm, elevating results that have received a thumbs-up "like" from a friend on Facebook.
Neither of those moves have done anything to change the dynamics of the search marketplace. Google has held steady at roughly 66 percent share of the U.S. search market ever since Microsoft began integrating Facebook into Bing, according to ComScore. Currently, Bing holds roughly 15 percent share of the U.S. search market.
At a press conference announcing the new features, Microsoft was vague about how they'd measure the success of the service. Qi Lu, president of Microsoft's online services division, called market share a lagging indicator, and said the company would focus initially on user engagement.
"We really want to make sure we give our users the best experience," Lu said.
Rebecca Lieb, an analyst at Altimeter Group, isn't convinced that the Facebook integration will help searchers get information they ultimately are seeking.
"Will it provide a better solution to answering questions?" Lieb said. "It might provide people with alternative paths to pursue, but not necessarily provide an answer. Bing advertises itself as an answer engine. I don't know that it's that."
Updated at 11:18 a.m. PT to details from today's press conference and to clarify that users will only need to sign into Facebook and not Microsoft's Windows Live to access the new service.
CNET Executive Editor Paul Sloan contributed to this article.