Online sales grew by more than 30% in the fourth quarter, but store sales slid by 6.1% year over year.
The Microsoft search engine will pepper search results with Facebook information.
In the coming weeks, Microsoft Corp. will release a new version of its Bing search engine designed to make a user’s Facebook friends play a bigger role in web search results.
“We’re evolving search in a way that recognizes new user paradigms like the growth of the social graph, and will empower people with the broad knowledge of the web alongside the help of their friends,” says Qi Lu, president of Microsoft’s online services division.
Industry experts say the tighter connections with Facebook could help Bing provide search results that will appeal to many consumers, particularly for heavy users of Facebook, while also supporting more revenue-generating ad clicks for Microsoft. “Bing may actually be able to get some heavy Facebook users to prefer Bing results over Google’s, which would be a major coup,” says Kevin Lee, CEO of Didit, a search engine marketing firm.
“Better incorporation of social signals into search results can certainly help the Bing user experience and encourage revenue-generating ad clicks,” adds George Michie, CEO of search marketing firm The Rimm-Kaufman Group.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.
The updated Bing will display Facebook content under an icon for the social network in a “social sidebar” on the far-right side of the search results page. Without leaving the page, searchers will be able to click the Facebook icon to connect to the social network, making any pertinent content from their personal Facebook page appear in the sidebar.
Microsoft provided an example of a search on Bing for “drake hotel Chicago,” that displayed in the social sidebar such information as the names of friends who live in Chicago and might be of help, as well as any recent Facebook posts related to Chicago by the searcher’s Facebook friends.
The updated Bing will also feature a new “snapshot” section that will provide a summary of specific and interactive content related to the search keyword. In the example of the Drake Hotel search, Microsoft said the snapshot could include just about everything a searcher might need to know about the hotel without having to leave the search results page. For instance, it could include the hotel’s average room rate, interactive check-in and check-out calendar windows for choosing reservation dates, an interactive map showing the hotel’s location, ratings and reviews and hotel photos. The snapshot section, which also shows paid search ads related to the search term, will appear in the middle of a search results page between regular search results and the social sidebar.
By comparison, a search for the Drake Hotel on Google displays an interactive Google map showing the hotel’s location on the right side of the search results page, as well as a number of paid search ads related to the Drake and other Chicago hotels.
Microsoft, which owns a small stake in Facebook, also says the updated Bing will support faster searches, the result of a number of tweaks by Bing software engineers.
But search experts say the most important part of the Bing update is the Facebook connection, which as designed appears to go beyond what Google has done with its own social network, Google+. Google earlier this year added a search tool that enables a user to have his search results peppered with data from Google+. “Google has gone down this road as well, but suffers from its focus on Google+ rather than the much more widely used social networks,” Michie says. Google+ remains far less popular than Facebook. For instance, consumers, on average, spent 423 minutes on Facebook in December compared to five minutes on Google+, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc.
Michie adds, however, that it remains to be seen whether the new Facebook content will help Bing gain search market share against Google. In March, Google had 66.4% of the U.S. Internet search market, compared with 15.3% for Bing and 13.8% for Yahoo, according to comScore. Bing provides the search results for Yahoo sites, so effectively Bing accounted for 29.1% of search results in March.
Lee notes, however, that Google’s attempts to display social content from Google+ resulted in social content mixed within general search results. But Bing, by placing Facebook content in a more noticeable, designated section, he says, may increase page view time and, in turn, ad views and clicks.
“There won’t be an immediate impact for advertisers,” Lee says. “But it may indeed make Bing a better search engine.”
Search marketing will be addressed at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition by Krishan Agarwal, president and CEO of luxury goods retailer Melrose.com, in a session titled “Ways to drive shoppers from social media to you site.”