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Bing to duel Google with Facebook-friendly format

Thursday - 5/10/2012, 2:47pm  ET

By MICHAEL LIEDTKE
AP Technology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Microsoft's Bing search engine is heading in a new direction as it drills deeper into Facebook's social network and Twitter's messaging service to showcase information unlikely to be found on Google.

The changes, unveiled Thursday, will reshape how Bing displays its search results. It represents Microsoft's most dramatic shift in Internet search since the software maker introduced Bing as a "decision engine" nearly three years ago.

Microsoft Corp. is counting on the new format to loosen Google's stranglehold on the lucrative Internet search market. In the process, Microsoft hopes to turn a profit in its online division, which has lost more than $6.3 billion since Bing's June 2009 debut.

Bing replaced "Live Search," a mostly futile attempt to challenge Google. Microsoft touted Bing as a Google alternative that would provide more meaningful results by helping people make important decisions, such as picking a doctor and finding the best time to buy an airline ticket.

For the past two years, Bing has been taking advantage of Microsoft's close relationship with Facebook to make search results more personalized and more relevant to users. It's an advantage Bing has over Google because its rival is shut out from the personal data Microsoft has access to on the world's largest network. But Bing has failed to come up with an approach compelling enough to lure away most Web surfers from Google.

Bing is trying to fix that with the latest changes, which come out next month. Microsoft plans a marketing blitz on television and the Internet to promote the changes. Anyone seeking a peek during the next few weeks of testing can go to http://www.bing.com/newThursday to sign up for an invitation. The testing period will begin Tuesday.

The revised system presents Bing's results in three columns, or panes.

The left column will feature the familiar blue links drawn from Bing's computer formula for finding the most relevant results.

The middle section, called "Snapshot," is reserved for completing tasks, such as getting directions, making a hotel reservation or buying movie tickets. This feature isn't expected to be available during the testing phase.

Once available, Snapshot will provide a space featuring movie show times and an option to buy tickets in response to a search for "The Avengers." Searches for hotels will bring up pictures of rooms and information on amenities, as well as the ability to make reservations.

The "Sidebar" column on the far right side will be the centerpiece of the new Bing.

Sidebar is where Bing users logged into Facebook will see recommendations culled from their Facebook network. From there, people will be able to pose questions for their friends on their own Facebook pages without leaving the results page. The results from a Bing search can even be shared on Facebook.

For instance, a search for "Kauai hotels" might list your Facebook friends who have been to the island. You can then use the Sidebar box to post a note about it on Facebook and even seek advice from a specific friend.

The Sidebar column also will highlight relevant tweets, including those from people you might not follow. The feature will also suggest experts on topics related to certain search requests and list their Twitter handles, along with any blogs or other websites where they share their insights.

Most of the personal data that Bing is pulling from Facebook and Twitter is unavailable to Google because its search engine doesn't have the same access to those information-sharing hubs as Microsoft does through its partnerships.

"This is a big, bold bet that we think is going to surprise a lot of people," said Lisa Gurry, Bing's senior director. "It's a fundamentally different way of looking at search."

It's also an admission by Bing that its previous attempts to incorporate Facebook data into its search results haven't worked out.

Although Bing has been far more successful than Live Search, virtually all of its gains have come at the expense of Yahoo Inc., which began relying on Microsoft's search technology in 2010 as part of a 10-year partnership between the companies. Bing's latest changes won't affect how Yahoo users get search results.

For the past year, Bing has been customizing search results based on the recommendations expressed by the number of times a user's Facebook network had pressed a "like" button on topics related to a search request. Gurry said Bing discovered that most Web surfers didn't want the results influenced by their friends to be co-mingled with answers generated by a computer program.

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