Stefan Weitz Discusses the True Value of Social Signals

Key Points From The Interview

  1. Bing’s goal is to make social signals more valuable by presenting them in a way that actually augments the search experience.
  2. Previously, most social information was trapped in people’s heads. Now, they are publicly expressing this information in a way that machines are able to read it and make use of it.
  3. Likes are a good signal, but they’re not a granular signal of what particular thing you’re actually expressing a like about.
  4. Social integration in search is more than simply looking at a like and then showing the liked item. It is about taking that social data and creating a profile that can then be used to add more value to the search experience.
  5. While Google is trying to build their own social network, Bing prefers to partner with and integrate with social media companies that are already doing amazing work in their respective niche.

Full Transcript

Eric Enge: Hi, this Eric Enge. I’m the CEO and founder of Stone Temple Consulting, a general purpose internet marketing optimization firm. I’m here today with Bing’s Stefan Weitz. Stefan, can you introduce yourself, please?

Stefan Weitz: I’m Stefan Weitz. I work here in the Bing Plex. Today, I’m coming to you live, from Chicago, but generally, I’m based out of Seattle, and doing all sorts of things with respect to Bing search engine.

Eric Enge: General purpose trouble-maker, as you might call it.

Stefan Weitz: Very accurate.

Eric Enge: I really liked seeing the news about this Foursquare integration that you guys did. It looked pretty cool. It’d be great if you could give an overview of that, but also, talk about how it fits into the bigger picture of the things that you’re doing with your social sidebar.

Stefan Weitz: It’s actually pretty exciting. The Foursquare deal was one that we announced at the launch. The whole notion is, how do we take all these different social signals and figure out the most appropriate way to display them?

If you noticed, what happens with Foursquare, it’s not necessarily that your friends checked in there. That’s potentially interesting, but what we’re actually displaying are tips about the venues that you’re looking at.

If you search for Italian pizza in Chicago, for example, we may show some tips from people who have gone to places in Chicago serving Italian pizza and actually give you the idea about what to do in those particular places.

We could have just taken your friends and then shown you a big check-in there, but again, we’re thinking about, how do we actually make this more valuable than just doing that?

Coming up, we’ve got some stuff, obviously, with LinkedIn, with Quora and a couple others that I don’t think they’ve even announced yet. You’re going to see, again, this notion of: how do we use those social signals with social parts of the web to augment the search experience, not just pepper it with random and sundry notifications?

Eric Enge: Do we have any timeline on LinkedIn and Quora, at this point?

Stefan Weitz: No, but the guys and gals who are on this are on the Agile Development Method, so they’re shipping new updates monthly, and they’re shipping some things even faster than that. It’s just a matter of time. I don’t know when those are on the books, but they are actually working on all of them.

Eric Enge: I guess one of the things I really like about this, is, as I mentioned to you before, this notion that you’re tapping into a new data source. This social data source has been out there for a while, and people have been doing stuff with Facebook and Twitter, but now, with what you’re doing with the sidebar, and the way you’re leveraging this Foursquare data and the other data, it’s a whole new rich source of information here.

Stefan Weitz: That’s right, and really, it’s information that until now has been kind of trapped in people’s heads. Think about your contact list. Maybe six years ago, your contact list was either on a piece of paper or in an address book, or maybe in Outlook in your contacts, but it wasn’t accessible to a machine. It wasn’t accessible to anything that could actually make value out of that.

… so much of what those social signals actually are bringing are things that were previously trapped inside your head …

I think what’s so exciting about all of these social signals, and all of these social sources, is that so much of what those social signals actually are bringing are things that were previously trapped inside your head. When I went to Chicago, I wanted to eat at Alinea. I know that, but I never actually told anybody that, but I’ve liked Alinea on Facebook. The ability for this system is to actually say, you like Alinea, if there’s an opportunity for him to go when he’s there.

These are things that, again, were trapped in my head. And now, people are publicly expressing what’s been trapped in their heads, in a way that machines can actually read it, and make use of it.

Eric Enge: Right. I think one of the things I like about this announcement in particular is, because it’s expanding into an additional social network, is that, for a long time, people have speculated that if an article got a lot of likes, that that would be a ranking factor. I think that’s a little rough, as a ranking factor. Not that you can’t use it, but whether your friend or someone you know has an opinion about something, that’s a really good signal. Would you agree with that?

… likes are a good signal, but they’re not a granular signal of what particular thing you’re actually expressing a like about.

Stefan Weitz: Absolutely, but it’s tough, because, as you said, what does a like mean? Some people like the page, some folks might like the content, some folks might just think it’s funny and likeable. As you said, the likes are a good signal, but they’re not a granular signal of what particular thing you’re actually expressing a like about.

But certainly, as your friends and other people do express actions digitally, whether it’s checking in somewhere, or whether it’s leaving a tip, or whether it’s putting a company on their resume, or whether it’s answering a question on venture capital on Quora, all those social contributions to the web are good signals.

You may see that I’m constantly posting on Quora around venture capital. Well, if one my friends does a search on venture capital, wouldn’t it be great if Bing could actually show that I, as one of their friends, seemed to have some knowledge about venture capital on there? It’s much more than simply just looking at the likes and saying, “Oh, this is a cool thing to show.” It’s literally about taking that social data and creating a profile that can then be used for my friends and for myself to add more value to the search experience.

Eric Enge: This is, I think, a key part of your plan to differentiate from that other search engine.

Stefan Weitz: You can say Google. I get itchy, but you can still say it.

Eric Enge: Yes, from Google. They’re not really going down this path right now, it seems.

Stefan Weitz: Well, they’re taking a different approach. They’re building their own network, which is certainly one approach to take. We think that there are a number of social networks that exist that are doing a really good job. We didn’t think that the world needed another social network.

Frankly, what you find as well is, these different networks have different purposes. Foursquare has a different purpose than LinkedIn, has a different purpose than Quora, has a different purpose than Facebook and Twitter, etc. I think, to create one new social network that sensibly is going to do all the things that the other ones do, just seems a bit clunky.

We don’t have to build everything, and frankly, we can’t build everything.

And so, I think our method, our market strategy since the launch of Bing, has been to partner with the best in breed companies, sources, applications across the web, whether it’s in health department, with things like the Mayo Clinic, whether it’s travel, we partner with Kayak. We’re trying to actually say, “We don’t have to build everything, and frankly, we can’t build everything.” There are companies out there who are doing amazing work, that we can integrate into Bing, so the consumer gets the benefit of having that integration, without us having to actually go and build everything.

Eric Enge: I like the strategy, I like the direction. Congratulations on the release, and I hope it continues going well for you guys.

Stefan Weitz: Me too. Thanks very much. I appreciate the time.

Eric Enge: Thank you.

About Stefan

photo of Stefan Weitz

Stefan Weitz is a Director of Search at Microsoft and is charged with working with people and organizations across the industry to promote and improve Search technologies. While focused on Microsoft’s product line, he works across the industry to understand searcher behavior and in his role as an evangelist for Search, gathers and distills feedback to drive product improvements. Prior to Search, Stefan led the strategy to develop the next generation MSN portal platform and developed Microsoft’s muni WiFi strategy, leading the charge to blanket free WiFi access across metropolitan cities. A 13-year Microsoft veteran, he has worked in various groups including Windows Server, Security, and IT. Stefan is a huge gadget “junkie” and can often be found in electronics shops across the world looking for the elusive perfect piece of tech. You can follow Stefan on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Awesome article! Thanks for the great details on periodic changes!! Helps a lot.

  2. Well, if Google or Microsoft is thinking to take serious media signals more rigorously, then they must think twice. Of course, it does reflect the brand reach and its popularity, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to all brands. Look at the gigs at fiverr which offers bulk like for measly $5 (the service provider is only getting $4).
    I hope it doesn’t start a new era of blackhat strategy that can easily manipulate search engine. It would be great if Google can consider brand reputation, author reputation, number of follower or friends on particular network along with social mentions. But then again, people can purchase them also.

  3. I work in the marketing department at ProFlowers and I like how Bing is incorporating additional social signals into its algorithm. In particular, I like how they are using established platforms like Linked-in, Foursquare, FB, and other sites with a significant install-base where they can get a great deal of rich information to inform there search results. While I don’t always think that Bing has the best results, I do feel that there overall results page is quite diverse, can appeal to a broad set of users, and triangulates signals from various web content, social sentiment, and quasi-real time content.

    I think that Ricky makes a good point about how some folks will work to manipulate the algorithm, but I think that gaming social sentiment on Foursquare, or comments of FB, or Q&A on quora in a scalable fashion is tougher to do than with external links.

  4. Interesting article. I guess time will tell if the engines can accurately interpret and incorporate social signals into their ranking algos to deliver relevant and personal results to users on a large scale. No doubt it’s a space SEOs should be aware of as it has the potential to change everything but I’m not convinced that the impact is as high as people claim at this point.

  5. Sentiment is guess is the next big hurdle for you and others. You may know / mash-up some related facts cross sources, but to draw relationships and categorisations that others may be relevant or even useful is a massive undertaking. The complexity of language, from words, synonyms, hypernyms through to sarcasm and deliberate silliness is a massive challenge. Not even mentioning regional dialects and colloquialisms! Good luck and I hope you guys get to market first.

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