TMMPDX recently had the opportunity to speak with Online Marketing Summit (OMS) Seattle keynote speaker Stefan Weitz, Director of Search at Bing, to pick his brain about social search and changes happening in the SEO world.
Stefan Weitz: The keynote is primarily focused on the ‘why’ behind social search. We’ve been hearing a lot about the ‘whats’ and the innovations, and the companies like Bing and Google who are infusing search with this social data. But no one has done a great job yet discussing really why it’s so important that we actually do this. In the keynote I’ll highlight some areas of research that have been done outside of Microsoft, at places like Harvard and Columbia, who have looked at why this phenomena of social and the social adaptation side of search is so intrinsic to the human experience. We’re going to look at how we as humans really rely on each other, on signaling from each other to make good decisions.
Previously, search has been a very singular experience, a very autonomic experience. One where you do a search, you get information back; you have to sort though all that data to make a decision. That isn’t actually how you and I make decisions every day. If you think about it, you make hundreds of decisions a day, including things like “Should I wear a coat when I go outside?” or “Should I go upstairs for lunch or go downstairs to get a sandwich?” All of these trivial things you do every day but in many cases you actually ask somebody or you use your “social network”, which is sitting around you in the office, to make that decision. And again, in search, up ‘til now, that has been absent; it’s been divorced.
So our approach to social and where the industry needs to go is to recognize that people, when making decisions, rely on other people a lot. In fact, 90% of people tell us in our surveys that they rely on their friends and their network for making decisions. And interestingly, 80% of people tell us that they will delay making a purchase until they have the chance to talk to a friend. This is very important for online marketers and website owners because that’s saying that you could have the best tools in the world on your site, tools that help people sort through all of the options and narrow it down to the particular product they might want to buy and they can get all the way to the end, they can spend 20-30 minutes actually going to the site, getting to the final product and they can see it and their gonna go buy it… and they stop. 80% of the time, they stop and they go and they ask somebody “Hey, I’m thinking of buying this new video camera. Have you used it? What do you think? Is it good? Is it bad?” And they delay that decision, they delay that purchase until they talk to someone. It’s an example of how, in viewing the search experience or the purchase experience, it would be to have the ability to connect with those who you trust. It’s really the key to getting rid of that decision delay.
I’ll end with how our human nature, how our Paleolithic ancestors have actually caused us to rely a tremendous amount on social signals for decision-making. And I’ll talk about how humans really use these social cues to be safer, to make better decisions, and to be happier with those decisions once they’ve made them. Those are the three big areas of research that has been done in the space. And really that’s part of the reason why we think that the social search, the social data, that goes into search is such a revolution. It’s not simply an evolution of us jamming some additional data into the search page. It really is a fundamental rethink about search. Because it really is saying now, for the longest time, we have assumed that we can answer people’s questions; we can help you make decisions, by using the rational, logical side of your brains.
We give you great results; we give you great tools, like our fare prediction systems for travel or our shopping systems from Bing, all of these great logical tools. But what we’ve been missing for the last ten years of search is that emotional side, that emotional connection to other people when making decisions. So that’s why social is so critical. Because literally now what we’re saying is that we’re completing the picture, we’re actually leveraging that data which before has been absent from the search experience. We are actually now bringing it in to the search experience, to make search more like making decisions in real life. That’s the net of the speech.
TMMPDX: Does Bing plan on integrating social within other products, such as Bing Travel and Shopping, in addition to search results?
SW: In fact, we already are a little bit. If you look at Bing Shopping, one of the innovations that we pioneered in this last release was the ability to add a number of products to a list. So you can go start using our tools to narrow down a number of, say 3 cameras. Say you’re looking for a new digital camera and you go through the 2,000 that are out there and you can look at the specs and narrow it down to 3 or even 5. Then you can actually add those 3-5 to a virtual shopping list and that list gets saved in your account. And then with one button you can send it out to your Facebook friends, to a small number of friends or to your entire Facebook list, and ask their opinion. So if you are trying to buy a camera and you know that you have a few friends out there who are camera experts, all you have to do is add it to your list, click on the names of the friends that you want to send a notification to inside of the user interface and boom they get a notification in their Facebook feed saying “Hey, Stefan has some questions about cameras. Can you come check it out?” That’s one example of how it’s not just taking the social signals that are generated by people, but really tapping into that social decision-making network inside of shopping.
TMMPDX: It’s like being able to go shopping with your friend and say, “Hey, do you think this will look good on me?”
SW: Exactly! What’s so funny is when we first started talking about this feature I can recall looking at it going “No one’s gonna do that. That just seems so crazy.“ But then I started looking at some of the behaviors, especially of younger people, when it comes to Facebook. The number of times that I saw younger people actually posting “Should I buy X or Y?” to Facebook, and then having huge discussions on their public wall with friends across the country on the topic, astounded me. Then it hit me– Wow, clearly I don’t use Facebook the way people younger than me use Facebook! The Bing Shopping list feature really taps into that notion.
TMMPDX: On the travel side, I see a lot of friends in my own social network posting “I want to take a vacation. Anyone have any ideas for where I should go?” What are the plans for integrating social with Bing Travel?
SW: One thing we are actually doing today is if you go to Bing Travel you can do what’s called a “travel wish list”. You can literally construct a page of places that you want to go or that you’d like to go see and other people in your social network on Facebook can actually contribute to that as well. Literally you can create this page that your friends can comment on that says “Hey, I really want to go to Vietnam this summer.” Using the power of our wish list on travel you are able to actually post that and people can comment on that. In some cases your friends can suggest places for you to go. So my friend Betsy suggested that I head down to Sydney because there are some cool things there that I would like. It is starting there; it’s not quite as fleshed out as Shopping but it’s certainly an area that we believe in. Travel is expensive; we know that. There’s nothing worse than spending a lot of money to go somewhere and then getting there and realizing that it was a terrible decision.
TMMPDX: Are there other products that Microsoft plans on integrating with the social web or social signals?
SW: Certainly. If you look just across the company, things like Xbox has it’s own social graph and the 35 million or so accounts that are active on Xbox. That’s a huge number of social connections that are across the network in a very deep and rich way. If you’re playing games with each other, talking to each other via voice chat, all those types of things. And we can’t forget, of course, the Windows Live system. Our Windows Live Messenger and our Windows Live Hotmail has over half a billion accounts on those systems. So a huge number of people, especially outside the US and also within the US, use that as their primary means of communicating. There’s really just this amazing amount of social signals that have yet to be tapped when it comes to search.
TMMPDX: What are your thoughts on Google’s +1? What do you think will be its effect on Bing’s social edge and everything that Microsoft is trying to do in social search?
SW: It’s an example of, again, trying to get people to add their social footprints to the web. I think the challenge that Google, or anybody would have in this space, is there’s already, frankly, a leader in the space and that leader is called Facebook. And that company has got Like buttons and Share buttons across millions of sites and we get hundreds of millions of these signals everyday from Facebook. People don’t want to create yet another social network. You don’t want to have to maintain nine different networks. You may already have one on LinkedIn, you may already have one on Twitter, and you may already have one on Facebook. There’s no benefit to creating another one, unless your friends will jump on to the Google + bandwagon. So I think that’s the first problem, it just highlights the challenge of new people coming in this space.
We, luckily, have access to the full Facebook fire hose, which means we get all of the public Likes and Shares from anybody on Facebook, unless of course you set your privacy settings differently. So we actually already have access to hundreds of millions of signals every single day. The other thing is that initially they rolled out +1 as a way to +1 links on a search results page. Which, if you think about it, is kind of crazy. I’m not sure how often you actually like a link on a search page. You may click on a link and say, “Oh, this is a good page!” but the chance that you come back to the search page and press +1 is pretty slim. You are busy; you don’t have time for that kind of garbage. We’ll see. I think it’s just a reaction to the fact that they don’t have access to Facebook’s social data, which is recognized as the premier source of social data today.
TMMPDX: It definitely feels like the lines between SEO and social are becoming more and more blurred, or integrated, as time goes by. Do you think this is a trend that is going to continue? Is SEO going to cease to exist in the form that we know it as today?
SW: I think people have said forever that SEO is going to die. I think I’ve heard that at least 100 times over the past 10 years. I think the beautiful thing about SEO is that the people who are great practitioners of it know about change. They know how to pivot with whatever happens in the search engines. I think it’s one of their amazing capabilities.
What’s happening with SEO here is that the traditional notions, frankly, are kind of going away. This ability for clients to tell you that “I want to be #1 on Google, I want to be #1 on Bing for this keyword”, those types of requests will become less and less. It’s going to become more difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee that placement because every single query going forward is gonna be a more personalized social query. So the chance of you ranking highly, unless you’re like FedEx maybe or one of those huge brands that have a logical place to go, the chance of you being able to guarantee that to a client is going to become nearly impossible. I think what’s going to happen with SEO is, really what a lot of you folks in the online marketing world do today, really helping them manage their overall online presence, not just their website.
Of course we see tremendous value in making sure your brand is represented accurately across Foursquare, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Yelp, and Citysearch, and Urbanspoon, and all these different places where customers can give you feedback– both good and bad. That’s really where a lot of the SEO work needs to be happening. Because it’s really now about helping us, the engines, find the information we need to decide whether or not to display that particular link to a customer who is querying for it. Then again, search is getting very personally relevant now, not nearly like it used to be where it was one query goes out to one index that pulls back a particular result.
TMMPDX: Is it still important to have a solid SEO foundation for your website? Or can a newly launched website, one that hasn’t really been optimized, dive right in to social and see good results?
SW: Oh, no, no. For now, definitely the core basics of SEO are still hugely important. Because really what’s happening is, yes we’re using social signals and whatnot to do a great job personalizing, socializing results. But what we still have to understand is what the web looks like. We still need to understand what people are offering on the web. If you didn’t have proper markup tags, if you didn’t have your header tags, your h1 tags, all of those kinds of things on your pages, then the ability for us to crawl your page is going to be diminished. So we still need to have that core foundation of SEO to help the engines themselves do a great job parsing the information that you’ve got up there on the web. But that’s not just on your site, that’s in-links from across the world, as well as a superbly structured page. They’re important and they have to be done. But that won’t guarantee your client a #1 place on Bing or Google.
This is not happening tomorrow or overnight. We have some stuff in the lab that I’m seeing now, and that’s coming out fairly soon, that really does add more personalized results to your query. People will begin to see a much more divergent set of results. So if you query and I query then we’ll definitely see a different set of results for a particular set of keywords.
It is going to become, rather it’s social or even personal– which is different than social I think, both of those aspects. Who you are and who you know will have a dramatic effect on search going forward.
TMMPDX: Also where you are located and your search history comes into play now, so there are a lot of variables for SEOs and clients to consider.
TMMPDX: You recently stated that the collective efforts of Bing, Google, and Yahoo that are outlined on schema.org could be very important to search in the near future. Can you talk a little more about how search engines are currently using these new tags?
SW: Microformats have been around for a while, obviously we all know that. But we also know that they’re pretty hard to use in some cases. So the idea behind schema.org was really to provide a flexible yet fairly rudimentary and simple markup language that gives the engines a way to make more sense of your page and of your service. We’re not using it a ton today except for something we call “the objectification of the web”. It sounds terrible, but really what it means is that we’re trying to literally recreate the physical world in the digital medium.
What that means is we are looking across particular domains. We first began with movies. We looked at the movie domain because we thought that it was a simple one to attack. There are plenty of sources that have movie information- IMDB and Freebase and all of these places have done a great job of assembling information about films. Well it turns out that they had done a great job, but there’s also divergent information across all of these sites. It’s really much more challenging than you would imagine to create the definitive link, the definitive object for a movie, like say Die Hard. So what we’ve done now, we’re trying to go across all of these different sites and literally reassemble that Die Hard movie into something that is a fully described object. Which means that we understand the movie, who was in it, who directed it, how much money it made, where it was shot, how much the case weighs, where you can buy it, if it’s a dual layer or a single layer DVD, literally anything that you could imagine about that object. Just like you and I in real life can kind of look at the object and get information. We are going to recreate that in silicon.
Now that’s important because once you understand all these objects, once you have fully described the entire physical world in the digital medium, every table, every magic 8 ball, every water bottle, everything, once you describe all those things, you can then actually respond to users queries far differently than before. So I ask for, “Can I book a table at Seastar tonight?” That’s a very colloquial query. Then the system has to understand “booking a table” actually means, “make a reservation”. It knows a table, it knows a restaurant has tables, it understands that concept. To book reservations, the system will now begin to look at all the different services that exist across the web that could actually fulfill that request. So when you say “I want to book a table at Seastar tonight for 2 at 7”, the system will know that Seastar is a restaurant, booking a table means make a reservation, that restaurants can have reservations made at OpenTable.com, so it will broker out that request out to OpenTable.com and return the completion results back to you– on whatever device you’re on. So the notion of schema.org is that it helps all the engines with that task of recreating the entire physical world in the digital medium. That’s why it’s so important.
TMMPDX: It sounds like it’s really a step towards a better understanding by the engines of what the intent is behind your search.
SW: Absolutely. The Silicon 3-piece, if you think about it how I think about search stuff today, you’ve got the notion of fully articulating all the objects in the world. So recreating the physical world. You’ve got the notion of finding all the services that exist across the web, so you can think of Taxi Magic, you can think of OpenTable, you can think of literally all of the different things that people can do on the web and you think of all of the things that are possible on the web. And then you have to really understand the user very well. Who is the user? Who is he or she? Who is their social network? You have those three pieces that have to come together. Once you understand who the user is, and what they are asking, that’s the intent. Then you can connect the object with services and literally help the user achieve something, accomplish something, not just find the link to something.
TMMPDX: Would you say that it is currently essential to start incorporating some of the microdata and the new tags? Or is it still just something that could be done to possibly give you an edge? Is it mandatory?
SW: If you are asking right now if you have a list of priority items that you have to get done on your website from an SEO prospective and you’re backlogged 6 months, would I make schema.org my #1 priority? No I wouldn’t, not right now. But it simply cannot hurt you to be judicious in the markup of specific attributes if you know you have ratings on a product page or you have addresses of people, for example. If there’s an easy way to incorporate schema.org today, you should absolutely go do it. But I wouldn’t necessarily uproot my entire SEO plan to focus on this.
It is something that you also can’t ignore. It would be foolish to ignore long-term, so build it into your plan, get it into the roadmap, and understand how you can best use it. But I wouldn’t say that tomorrow you have to literally reboot your entire dev plan to do it.
TMMPDX: Do you know of any tools that are out there for webmasters and site owners to help implement these tags?
SW: I do not. That’s a good question. I’ll ask someone. I kind of doubt it because there are so many CRMs and CMSs that exist out there and I would be surprised if there was something. But maybe there’s something on WordPress. I’ll ask and let you know.
TMMPDX: One final question. I’m sure this is a question you get asked all the time– What do you think is the next big trend in search? What are your predictions? Look into your crystal ball and tell us.
SW: Yeah I never get that question, ha ha. No, it’s a great one. This is probably the most exciting industry I’ve ever, ever seen. I’ve never seen something moving as fast as this right now. So the next big thing in search is kind of what I was mentioning earlier. It really is moving from finding to doing. And it really is moving from getting information to accomplishing something.
If you think about the old web, the old web was really created as a tech-web with a bunch of links. And search itself, the structure and the function of search itself, was predicated on that web, on that structure of the web. This meant that it had to navigate a bunch of text pages using a bunch of links. Makes total sense. Well the web has changed in the last decade; in the last two years even the web has changed a lot. And we now have this massive amount of social data being put out there but we also have all these different services popping up that allow you to actually, again, do something, to really do something. You can book your air conditioning appointment from your local service, I can get my doctor’s appointment online, I can schedule my Comcast service request online, I can DVR a show from anywhere in the world. Literally you can do more today online than you have ever been able to do in the past. Ten years ago, maybe you’d by a book from Amazon, maybe you’d book a ticket on Expedia, but that was kind of the extent of what you would do online.
So really the next big thing in search is turning search away from the search box. The notion of having to enter keywords into a query box is frankly outmoded. Search will become much more implicit, so things can be searching on your behalf without you even asking for them. For example, I was in Australia last month and I had to go from Sydney to Canberra and I had forgotten to book a car for me to get from Sydney to Canberra. Ideally, I would have my search agent look in my calendar, realize that I have a meeting in Sydney and a meeting in Canberra and look at my travel itinerary, which is stored in my calendar online, and the search agent would say “Hey Weitz, you didn’t get a car from Sydney to Canberra” and it would go ahead and do a search, if you will, for all the available cars that are around, using services that are freely available on the web, and return back my options and probably book it for me because it knows my price. And it knows me very well and knows how cheap I am, so it would be a very, very cheap car from Sydney to Canberra.
That’s an example. That’s all search, but a search that really, again, understands those three big things– Who am I? What is the world or what are all the objects in the world? What are all the services in the world that one could use to interact with those objects? When you think of the web in terms of those three big buckets, the future of search becomes much less about that explicit keyword-based interaction and much more about helping you accomplish things in the real world, both explicitly, you ask for something, and implicitly, it does something on your behalf because it knows who you are. That’s where search is going and it’s not that far away.
TMMPDX: We are definitely in some exciting times right now, for sure.
SW: Absolutely. There is a bunch of research that has been done by people like my idol Michio Kaku, who’s a physicist, and he talks a lot about how people underestimate how fast we are actually moving because people tend to think about technical progressions, or progressions generally, in a very linear fashion. Today we have a 10 Megahertz processor, tomorrow a 20 Megahertz and then a 40 Megahertz. So you have this kind of linear progression, which is how people think about technology. When in actuality, if you look at what’s happening, it’s more a logarithmic progression. Literally, things are compounding faster than we’ve ever seen. If you had asked someone, just three years ago, “Do you think that Facebook will have half a billion users and 40% of the time that people under 25 spend online will be on Facebook?” They would have laughed at you. But indeed, that growth has happened and we’ve seen that metric come true. So I say all these things with a huge caveat that no one knows what’s going to happen.
TMMPDX: But it’s fun to guess.
To hear more from Stefan Weitz, register now for the Online Marketing Summit Seattle conference taking place June 22nd-24th. Use promo code TMMPDX15 and save 15% on registration!