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Microsoft Bing Friends Facebook

In an effort to outdo Google's social search integration, Microsoft has tagged Facebook. Here's what the move means.

Search is going social, like it or not. In a few weeks, Microsoft plans to roll out a revised version of its Bing search engine that includes a way to involve Facebook friends in the search process.

While the move looks like a response to Google's Search Plus Your World social integration, announced in January, it's more than that. Microsoft believes it can make search better by enabling Bing users to pose questions during the search process to Facebook users. This functionality will be available to users shortly through a new sidebar interface.

"You can post a question to get help from your Facebook friends as you search," explain Bing corporate VPs Derrick Connell and Harry Shum in a blog post. "You can 'tag' friends Bing suggests might know about the topic. In a few simple clicks you can share your search and your friends can reply to your question on either Facebook or Bing."

Bing will also be aggregating content posted on social networks and services like Twitter, Foursquare, Quora, LinkedIn, Google Plus and Blogger, and presenting that content when relevant.

[ See Google Marries Google+ To Search Results . ]

All the major browsers support some form of privacy mode. Internet Explorer looks like it will be the first to get a publicity mode. Nonetheless, Microsoft insists it has made an effort to maximize privacy protections. The company says that while you're using Bing and signed into Facebook, Bing will only reveal content that friends could access through Facebook directly.

For the 8.6% of U.S. Facebook users who don't use, or don't know about, Facebook's privacy settings, that may not be very assuring.

Behind this latest revision, the most significant in the past three years according to Microsoft, is the belief that search isn't enough. Microsoft tried to convey this message when it launched Bing as a "decision engine," the idea being that a search is just a stepping stone on the way to a decision.

Now the message is that people power Microsoft's decision engine. "People have become as important as pages and search needs to evolve to embrace these changes," Connell and Shum say. "The challenge has been to figure out how to integrate the information you care about with the people who can be most helpful to you in getting stuff done."

For Microsoft investors, the more salient question is how much money is enough to compete. Microsoft has reportedly spent more than $5.5 billion to date on Bing. Bing's U.S. market share was about 15% in March, according to comScore, which put Google's U.S. market share at about 66% during the same period. Globally, the gap is even wider: Net Application's NetMarketShare estimates that Google's global desktop search market share stands at 78%, with Bing at 4%, behind Baidu and Yahoo. And in the global mobile search market, it's a one-horse race, with Google at over 91% and Bing barely registering at 1%.

Evidently undaunted by Google's lead in mobile search, or perhaps just confident that Microsoft's antitrust complaints against Google have finally stirred regulators to action, Connell and Shum promise an improved Bing experience on mobile devices (m.bing.com) will soon be available. And they insist that testing reveals a preference for Bing when users aren't bedazzled by the Google brand.

"When shown unbranded search results 43% prefer Bing results while only 28% prefer Google results," they claim.

Microsoft has to hope that social search proves popular, because Google isn't likely to drop its branding just to give Bing a leg up.

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