Facebook, which is drawing closer to Microsoft as competition with Google heats up, is making it possible for Microsoft to display in web search results the recommendations of a person's Facebook friends.
The new capability, introduced Wednesday, marks an expansion of the partnership between Microsoft and Facebook. Microsoft is the exclusive web search provider on the social network.
Facebook users who use Bing or web search within the site will get with results the pictures of friends next to web pages they recommend. The Facebook results will be gathered from what people have indicated they "like" on the social network.
"Your friends have liked lots of things all over the web, and now instead of stumbling across a new movie or having to look at a friend's profile to see which restaurants they like, we're bringing everything together in one place," Bret Taylor, chief technology officer for Facebook, said in the company's blog.
In addition, Microsoft and Facebook are improving results when people search for other people. Searching for a person on Bing will include crawling through the friends of friends on Facebook to look for mutual connections. Bing will also make it possible to add such people as Facebook friends directly from the search engine.
Microsoft and Facebook plan to roll out the new features in the U.S. over the coming weeks. The new features are worthwhile enhancements to Bing, but are not a game-changer, Ray Valdes, analyst for Gartner, said in an e-mail to InformationWeek. "This alone won't change the dynamics of search engine competition between Bing and Google," Valdes said. "Google will remain dominant, although likely Bing will gain a bit -- especially if it keeps following up with additional improvements."
The real importance, according to Valdes, is the "emerging strategic conflict" between Facebook and Google, which are gradually encroaching in each other's turf. Google Buzz, launched in February, was an attempt by Google to turn its Gmail email service into a social communication hub. While that effort failed to take off, Google is expected to make another attempt at online social networking soon.
In the meantime, Facebook is growing in importance. The site in August dislodged Google as the top online destination in the U.S., with Americans spending more time virtually visiting friends than they did on all of Google's sites combined, according to ComScore.
"Google has made mistakes in the social arena in the past, but has tremendous resources that it is marshaling for a new assault on this market territory," Valdes said. "For Facebook to hold on to its leadership position in the face of the challenge from Google, it needs to make more alliances such as the one with Microsoft."
As the market in online social networking matures, companies in leading positions stand to make much more money from advertising. Linking ads to search results that include the recommendations of friends is considered a powerful marketing tool.