Microsoft's move to boost Bing's social networking feaures could finally give it an opportunity to truly take on Google's dominant search engine, analysts say.
The updated Bing search engine, unveiled on Thursday, can now include the user comments, likes and activities posted in popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, agreed with Microsoft's contention that the redesign is "the most significant since Microsoft launched Bing three years ago."
"The Bing redesign really is a search revolution and the biggest change I have seen from them in years," Moorhead said.
"Bing could revolutionize social search by tapping into Facebook's and Twitter's capabilities. Unlike Google, Bing and Microsoft aren't vying to create their own social media destination, so they can access the best-of-breed social media sites like Facebook and Twitter," Moorhead added.
Bing's new interface, which is expected to move from a private to a public beta test period soon, offers users a sidebar that focuses on people in the user's social networks and their opinions and search queries, Microsoft said.
For instance, a user might search for a local bike shop. Along with the usual search results, there will be a "people you know who may know" social sidebar that offers up bike shops that friends have "liked" or commented on.
The social sidebar also is designed to let users ask their friends questions about their query topic, and those friends can respond either through Bing or Facebook, Microsoft said.
"Contrary to their history of unnecessarily overcomplicating software, Microsoft has shown a knack with Bing for boiling down functionality to a useful level," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst at CurrentAnalysis. "I think if anything, it will entice consumers to try Microsoft Bing."
Since Microsoft first launched Bing in the summer of 2009, the company faced a daunting task in taking on Google's dominant search engine.
And Google has remained dominant. Despite all of Microsoft's efforts, including an upgrade in 2011, Bing simply hasn't been able to take a significant bite out of Google's market share.
Now, Microsoft is hoping that its social search capabilities can become the game-changer the company needs in the battle against Google.
Because it has its own growing social network, Google+, Google is at a disadvantage when trying to work with widely used offerings like Facebook and Twitter, analysts noted.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has strong relationships with both companies.
"Google needs to play more openly with Facebook as well as other social networking destinations, like Pinterest, Quora, Twitter and FourSquare," said Shimmin. "Google cannot afford to close its borders in defense of in-house solutions."
Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said Microsoft advancing the social context of its search engine is a good move for the company right now.
"Bing needed to redesign itself. It was the Dr. Pepper of the search market, and if it was ever going to make a move, it needed to do something different," he added. "I think the social search wars will be a great battlefront over the next few years. Bing has made their play, and now it's back to Google to respond."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is email@example.com.