Technology

Google and Bing Race to Search Social Media


Microsoft's Bing and Google's search service are preparing real-time searches of Twitter and Facebook posts. Targeted ads could follow

Google and Microsoft have more than each other to contend with in the lucrative market for Internet advertising. Increasingly, when Web surfers want information online, they're bypassing those rectangular search boxes on the home pages of Google (GOOG) and Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing and getting it instead from places where they already spend lots of time: social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

In a bid to stay relevant in the face of these shifts, Google and Microsoft said on Oct. 21 that they will incorporate information culled from social media sites into search pages. Microsoft said its Bing search engine will let users search for Twitter posts known as tweets and, later, for status updates posted to Facebook pages. The same day, Google said it too will include Twitter updates in search results and that it will begin offering a social search tool that delivers information posted by a searcher's friends on social sites.

Online advertising is an attractive market, but the search market has been getting more crowded as Internet users clamor for new ways to sort through data online and many people turn to their online social or professional circles for answers to questions previously reserved for traditional online searches.

Traffic to U.S. search engines grew 15% in the past year, according to consulting firm Hitwise. At the same time, traffic to microblogging site Twitter surged more than tenfold in the past year, while Facebook's traffic almost tripled. "It's a very competitive market, and the search engines are trying to keep the eyeballs on their sites," says Clayton Moran, an analyst at the Benchmark Co.

Google Would Search Friends' Comments

Twitter search is available in a test mode on Bing and will be introduced on Google in the coming months. The new Bing and Google services will index all public Twitter streams, and let users search for tweets on a specific topic right from the main search site. The idea for Google and Bing is to have people follow tweets and friends' status updates directly from Google.com and Bing.com, respectively, without having to log into Twitter or Facebook as often.

Similarly, Google's social search tool would let a user see how friends and acquaintances respond to a search query. Google Vice-President of Search Product & User Experience Marissa Mayer unveiled the social search features at the annual Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, although she didn't say which networks would be included.

Microsoft and Google are morphing their search engines into launch pads for a broader array of tasks users want to accomplish on the Internet, from buying music and shopping for consumer goods to keeping current on conversations about products, people, and news events happening on social networks. The savviest Web users increasingly want to tap into the real-time conversations happening on those networks when they peruse the Web.

Microsoft is introducing Bing's social media features in phases. On Oct. 21, it launched a Web site at bing.com/twitter that lets users type in keywords, or special tags representing users or topics, and see public Twitter messages as they stream into Twitter's own system. Microsoft filters those messages to make posts from highly connected users rise to the top, and to favor tweets that link to credible sources on the Web, said Yusuf Mehdi, a Microsoft senior vice-president, at the Web 2.0 conference.

Bing Will Search Facebook Messages

Twitter results won't show up in Bing's main search engine—for now. But Qi Lu, president of Microsoft's Online Services Div., said at the Web 2.0 conference that the announcement "is just the beginning" of how social networking results will influence Bing.

Microsoft also announced a deal with Facebook on Oct. 21 that will eventually incorporate Facebook users' public messages into Bing search results. That capability isn't available yet, however. About 19% of Web users post or read status updates, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

While helping search engines compete with social media, the new features may provide a way for Google and Microsoft to generate additional revenue by selling ads that appear alongside conversations as they take place. The transactions will give each search engine additional insights into user interests, which could in turn be used to better target advertising.

Search engines have attempted to capitalize on the social networking craze with their own sites for years, with varied degrees of success. Google's Orkut has taken off in such countries as Brazil, but never became popular in the U.S. Microsoft runs search on Facebook while Google is responsible for search on MySpace, another widely used social network.

In another move designed to give Google a competitive edge, the company next week is expected to announce a music service that lets consumers search for, listen to, and purchase songs from existing online music services, according to a person familiar with the matter. Google is also expected to introduce a new tab for music to supplement existing search tabs such as Images on its main search page. Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker declined to comment. The music service was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal and TechCrunch.

Music Downloads Coming Via Google

Google had been working for months on ways to let searchers get the actual song—not just links to lyrics and entries about the musicians—when they search for a song by name. The company was in contact with song sites, including La La Media, and reached a breakthrough about three weeks back, thanks in part to Google's R.J. Pittman, according to the person. In some cases, the deal will let users play a song once for free and then choose to buy a "Websong" (playable only through a browser) for 10¢ or buy the MP3 for 99¢. In other cases, users will be able to hear a 30-second sample of the song and be given an option to buy it from other locations.

The music features will help Google compete with social networks such as MySpace, which has become increasingly popular for promoting artists, as well as Apple (AAPL), which sells music through its iTunes Web site. "Owning destination sites [such as those focused on music] is more valuable," and is a hit with advertisers, says Ned May, a director at consultant Outsell. Google's music venture has already proved popular in China, where Google has allowed users to search for free, legal music downloads since March.

What's more, Google has the technology to eventually make its music search even better. Its Google Audio Indexing tool already lets people search audio in YouTube videos—say, to fast-forward to a certain point in a long speech.

Google's move could also prove to be a boon for partner record labels and music and Web radio services. "Its partners will benefit from a lot of additional traffic," says James McQuivey, a vice-president at consultant Forrester Research (FORR). According to WSJ.com, current partners include iLike.


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