Bing announces AI-powered new 'intelligent search' features

At Microsoft’s AI event yesterday in San Francisco, the company showcased its vision for AI-enabled computing, as well as its AI differentiation strategy. The latter essentially boils down to three big ideas: making AI-supported software broadly accessible to people to improve “everyday” experiences, the seamless combining of work and personal functionality in the same tools and the intention to be an ethical AI company.

Microsoft showed how AI and machine learning are now supporting its marquee products, from Windows to Office 365 and Bing. The most impressive demonstration of the day (from a self-interested perspective) featured AI-guided and automated design suggestions in PowerPoint.

There were several Bing-centric AI announcements, all under the heading of “intelligent search“:

Intelligent AnswersIntelligent Image SearchConversational Search

Intelligent Answers

Think of this as a kind of “next-gen Featured Snippets.” But what is different and interesting is that Bing is often summarizing or comparing multiple sources of information rather than just presenting a single answer.

If there are competing perspectives on an issue, for example, Bing will present them. It will also provide a “carousel of intelligent answers” if there are multiple answers to a question. This is intended to replace “blue links” and provide quick access to relevant information.

Below is a Bing-provided example of a comparison involving two different content sources on the question, “Is kale good for you?”

Intelligent Image Search

Here Bing is essentially doing what Pinterest announced in 2016 with “visual search” and object recognition. Bing is seeking to make virtually any image “shoppable.” Right now, that capability is focused on fashion and home furniture.

Users can “click the magnifying glass icon on the top right of any image to search within an image and find related images or products.” The example below illustrates how it works.

Bing can also detect and identify buildings and landmarks in user photos or in image search — though not yet in the real world.

Google Lens offers visual search for objects and places in the real world (so does Amazon, for products). I would anticipate that soon Bing will introduce a similar Lens-like capability through Cortana or its search app.

Conversational Search

Bing is taking search suggest/autocomplete to a new level with what it’s calling “conversational search.” From a very general or vague query, Bing will help with query refinement suggestions:

Now if you need help figuring out the right question to ask, Bing will help you with clarifying questions based on your query to better refine your search and get you the best answer the first time around. You’ll start to see this experience in health, tech and sports queries, and we will be adding more topic areas over time. And because we’ve built it with large-scale machine learning, the experience will get better over time as more users engage with it.

Finally, the company also announced the integration of Reddit content (answers/opinions) into Bing. Tim Peterson wrote about that in more detail yesterday. In short, however, Bing is going to show snippets of Reddit content or conversations when it believes that’s the best source of information.

Microsoft will also promote AMAs in search results and in knowledge panels: “On Bing you can discover AMA schedules and see snapshots of AMAs that have already been completed. Simply search a person’s name to see their AMA snapshot or search for ‘Reddit AMAs’ to see a carousel of popular AMAs.”

It’s unlikely that any of these changes will move the needle on market share in the short term. However, collectively they show an AI-driven acceleration of changes in search overall. Google will probably be compelled to answer a couple of the new Microsoft features.

If Microsoft truly wants to convert more users, it will need to be even bolder with features, content and UI changes. And the company is in a fairly strong position to be disruptive because it doesn’t rely on search-ad revenue to the extent that Google does.

Microsoft's new Outings app aims to help travelers find their next destinations

Microsoft has launched Outings, a new travel app for iOS and Android. Designed by the Microsoft Garage Project, the app curates travel-specific content and images to help users find potential travel destinations.

“Whether you’re looking for a fun hike near town or planning your next vacation destination, often the hardest part of travel is just figuring out where to go,” writes Lainie Huston on the Microsoft Garage blog. “Outings makes it easier by presenting inspiration for your next adventure, curating high quality travel blogs and beautiful images to show the information — and sneak peek — you need to pick where to go.”

According to Microsoft, the app includes a “Discover” feed listing US locations, and a “Nearby” feed that surfaces content related to local sites. Users can keep track of places they’ve traveled, as well as save and share places with contacts.

“We look forward to users’ feedback from our launch, and we plan to actively respond to them and add several new features in the coming months,” says Microsoft Garage program manager Vimal Kocherla.

Microsoft said it is also open to partnering with travel and local content providers that want to promote their content within the app.

Bing launches bots for local businesses

Bots are coming to Bing in a big way. Through its Bot Framework, Microsoft is starting to integrate chatbots into search results — to make search more interactive and transactional.

In April, Matt McGee spotted the appearance of chat functionality for selected Seattle-area restaurants. That is now rolling out officially (still only to restaurants) through Bing Places and the newly launched Business Bot program. Microsoft will automatically create a bot from the data in Bing Places.

The business doesn’t need to do anything technical. It just answers a few structured questions and accepts the bot agreement terms. Thereafter, when users search for the business, a screen like the following will appear:

Users can then get basic questions about the business answered through the bot (e.g., “do you have outdoor seating?”). If there’s a question it can’t answer, the bot will refer the user to a phone number.

The bot can also ask business owners additional questions, depending on what information users are seeking. The new information will then be incorporated into the data set the bot uses to respond.

There are three noteworthy aspects of this development:

The consumer experience: ability to get deeper questions answered and possibly conduct transactions within the SERPThe automated creation of the bot using data provided to Bing PlacesThe fact that the bot will be available across channels and platforms (create once, publish across sites)

Local businesses will be able to add “channels” with the click of a button, such as Facebook Messenger and Cortana. Currently, Business Bots is available for Bing, Skype and SMS. Facebook Messenger and Cortana are coming soon.

Microsoft envisions rolling bots out broadly to local businesses. I assume that questions and functionality will need to be tuned by vertical as they go. The company also sees large enterprises deploying bots and chat in search results. Transactional capabilities will be added over time.

Google offers Message extensions for AdWords but doesn’t have comparable chat functionality in organic results — although that will likely come. But with Business Bots, Microsoft has made chatbots (and AI) immediately accessible to SMBs.

Microsoft debuts brilliant Cortana SDK strategy

Since the advent of Amazon Echo/Alexa, and especially, Google Home, I had been wondering what Microsoft’s response would be and whether it would develop a stand-alone digital assistant device. Now it has, but not in the way I expected: the company has embraced a third-party SDK approach.

What this means is that other device-makers can potentially embed Cortana functionality into any piece of hardware. (And wherever Cortana goes, the Bing search index follows.) The first device to do so is a Harman Kardon stand-alone speaker, which will become available in 2017 (video below).

Yesterday, in San Francisco, Microsoft announced two things related to Cortana:

    Cortana Devices SDKCortana Skills Kit Preview

Cortana Skills, like Alexa skills, allow third-party developers to integrate with Cortana as a voice-search/virtual assistant front end:

The Cortana Skills Kit will allow developers to leverage bots created with the Microsoft Bot Framework and publish them to Cortana as a new skill, to integrate their web services as skills and to repurpose code from their existing Alexa skills to create Cortana skills. It will connect users to skills when users ask, and proactively present skills to users in the appropriate context. And it will help developers personalize their experiences by leveraging Cortana’s understanding of users’ preferences and context, based on user permissions.

Microsoft announced several early partners that were developing Cortana skills: Knowmail, Capital One, Expedia and TalkLocal. Virtual assistant “skills” (a term coined by Amazon) are the new apps.

Regarding device integration, the company’s SDK approach allows Cortana to be present on any device or operating system. Cortana, which claims 145 million users, is available on Windows 10, Android, iOS and the Xbox. This new announcement allows potentially any hardware OEM to embed Cortana and benefit from Cortana skills.

This approach, in retrospect, is consistent with Microsoft’s platform-agnostic software strategy that emerged with the appointment of CEO Satya Nadella. But it’s impressive nonetheless. And it means that Cortana will potentially get integrated into many more devices and device categories than its competitors.

Given Microsoft’s weak mobile position, Cortana is at a relative disadvantage vs. the Google Assistant, Siri, and even Alexa. Apple is rumored to be working on an Echo-like, Siri-powered device. One would have thought Microsoft would also go that route and build a proprietary hardware device.

However, the SDK strategy lets others who otherwise wouldn’t have access to this sophisticated AI/virtual assistant technology build Cortana into their devices. In offering that possibility, Microsoft has a real shot at becoming a leader in the category.

NORAD's Santa Tracker counts down the days until Christmas 2016 with Bing's help

Google’s not the only one with its eye on Santa’s whereabouts. For 61 years now, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has tracked Santa’s December 24 trip around the world.

The practice started in 1955 when a Sears, Roebuck & Co. advertisement mistakenly included NORAD’s phone number to call Santa. According to NORAD’s website, the number dialed directly into the Commander-in-Chief’s operations hotline.

“The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole,” says NORAD. “Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born.”

Bing has long been listed among NORAD’s many contributors to its Santa Tracker program. While Microsoft has not released an official announcement this year, a Bing spokesperson sent the following comments when asked about their contributions to the 2016 NORAD Santa Tracker:

“Microsoft is happy to support the North American Aersopace Defense Command (NORAD) tracker for Santa’s Christmas Eve flight once again for the 61st consecutive year. Millions of youngsters and kids-at-heart visit the site each December to track Santa on his global journey, making it the perfect blend of Christmas tradition and technology.”

Not only is NORAD counting down the days until Santa takes flight, NORAD’s Santa Village website offers a full host of holiday-themed activities, from games, movies and books to a gift shop where you can get a personalized NORAD Santa Tracker certificate, a letter from Santa and other merchandise.

In addition to helping out NORAD track Santa, Bing has decorated its home page with an Advent Calendar: Bing home page gets 31 holiday-themed surprises for each day of December.

Report: Microsoft responds to Amazon Echo, Google Home with "HomeHub"

In response to the unexpected popularity of Amazon’s Alexa devices, Google felt compelled to develop Google Home. There have also been rumors about a stand-alone Apple Siri device. I’ve been waiting for a Microsoft response; apparently there already is one.

It’s called HomeHub, which has reportedly been in the works for some time. This weekend, there were a number of stories about how HomeHub would “crush” Amazon Echo and Google Home when it’s released. However, HomeHub is not hardware, it’s a new software layer on or within Windows 10.

According to Windows Central:

Home Hub isn’t a dedicated device that’s designed to take on the likes of the Amazon Echo and Google Home, as in the end, Home Hub is just the software. But that software can do everything the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices can, but with one added benefit: a screen. Home Hub is designed to run on Windows 10 PCs, mainly All-In-Ones and 2-in-1’s with touch screens, but can work on any Windows 10 machine. Pen and ink support are also part of the plan.

A key feature of this smart-home software overlay will be an always-on Cortana, which will be accessible from the lock screen. Indeed, the central strategic difference between Microsoft’s approach and Google’s, and presumably Apple’s, in taking on Echo/Alexa is that there will be a PC or tablet screen to complement the virtual assistant experience.

This could solve an number of challenges that currently exist for both users and marketers with the screenless Echo and Home (notwithstanding the smartphone app and search companion features). But it also poses challenges for Microsoft. The “PC in the kitchen” scenario has not really materialized as a mass-market phenomenon. I could imagine a lower-cost version of Surface specifically intended for virtual assistant and smart-home management functions.

Price will be a major factor. With PC sales in decline — though Surface has been a success for Microsoft — it will be extremely challenging for Microsoft to convince people to spend hundreds of dollars for another PC, no matter how seemingly utilitarian. This is especially true against the competitive backdrop of Echo’s $179 and Google Home’s $129 price tags.

Until something more concrete makes its appearance, however, this is all speculation. Yet it makes sense that Microsoft, which has long aspired to be the brain of the smart home, would respond to the rise of Echo and Google Home, which directly threaten that role. Amazon announced last week that over Black Friday weekend it sold millions of Alexa-powered units.

The 10+ biggest things to happen in PPC so far in 2016

Paid search in 2016 might have started uneventfully, but the lull did not last. Beginning in February, there was a rush of announcements that culminated at the Google Performance Summit on May 24. Those announcements will shape much of what search marketers will be working on in the second half of the year. Here’s a look back at all the big feature updates, launches and news from Microsoft’s Bing Ads and Google AdWords so far this year.

The new Bing Network

In the first week of the year, Bing took over powering search and search ads on AOL from Google. In the 10-year deal, ads are served on AOL and AOL syndicated search partners.

In February, Microsoft formally separated from Yahoo with the launch of the Bing Network. In April 2015, the two companies announced what largely amounts to a dissolution of the Search Alliance after five years into the 10-year deal. Bing continues to serve ads on a good portion of Yahoo results, but account management is now completely separate, and Bing Ads scaled up a sales force of 450 and transitioned over 10,000 managed accounts in North America. In talking about the transition, Microsoft’s general manager of global search sales and service, Lynne Kjolso, said, “It took us five years to globally roll out the search alliance… and we unwound 90 percent of that in less than six months.”

So long, right rail ads

In February, Google confirmed that they would no longer serve text ads in the right rail on desktop. The move unifies how text ads display on all devices and paved the way for Google’s big Expanded Text Ads announcement (more on that below).

For more on the change and its impact, check out: what the changes mean for search marketers by Alistair Dent and why not to overreact by Kevin Ryan. Frederick Vallaeys offered advice on how to respond. Larry Kim and Andy Taylor shared looks at what happened in the early days of the change and how it affected bidding. And finally, here’s what Google’s Matt Lawson had to share about the reasoning behind the changes.

Big ad changes for Local & Maps

In April, Google started showing ads in the Local Finder, the page of local and Map results that users get to by clicking on “More places” from the local three-pack on the main search results.

Also as of April, Google no longer categorizes Maps as a Search Partner. The change means that only ads with location extensions are eligible to show in Maps, and it also means advertisers can opt out of Search Partners and still show ads in Maps.

Later that month, Google started using purple ad labels in Maps.

In May, at Google Performance Summit, ads and commerce head Sridar Ramaswamy announced that Promoted Pins will be coming to Maps, taking a page from Google-owned Waze. Ramaswamy also said that a third of mobile searches are now local and growing 50 percent faster than mobile searches overall.

The next frontier for ads is in the Local Pack in search results. Google’s Global Product Lead for Local Ads, Ali Turhan, discussed the testing the company is doing to show ads in (or possibly above) the pack of organic listings at SMX Advanced. We know for certain these ads are coming, but what they’ll look like and exactly where they’ll be placed is still being tested.

Google began showing ads in the Local Pack.

Store visits: In May, Google reported it has measured more than one billion store visits in 11 countries from AdWords ads since rolling out the measurement at the end of 2014. The company also said it is working on solutions to capture store visit data from smaller retailers. On a related note, Google’s program to track store transactions back to ad campaigns is still in beta.

Rethink the last 15 years of text ad testing

Expanded Text Ads are undoubtedly the biggest change announced in the first half of the year. Every single advertiser running text ads will be rewriting ads in the coming months. We first reported on the Expanded Text Ads test in April. The new format was officially announced at GPS. Bing Ads soon announced it would support ETAs. Google’s Sundeep Jain, who oversees all things text ad, discussed the rollout in a keynote discussion at SMX Advanced. The message from both Google and Bing is to rethink your ad creative; don’t try to tack on some extra characters.

For more on ETAs, check out:

AdWords’ new extra headline: 7 ways to make the most of it from Matt Lawson.

How to prepare for AdWords’ expanded text ads and device-based bidding by Matt Umbro.

Device bidding is coming back, baby!

The best-received announcement of 2016 so far has to be that Google is bringing device bidding back to pre-Enhanced Campaigns days. Bid modifiers remain, but tablet and desktop bids will be separate, and advertisers can set base bids for mobile. Will search marketers go back to setting up device-specific campaigns? These and other implications will be the focus of a lot discussions in the coming months.

Updates for Shopping & retail

A helpful update for marketers manually managing their product feeds was the addition of Feed Rules in Google Merchant Center to add custom labels, make quick fixes and more at the end of April.

GTIN requirements for Shopping feeds went into effect May 16 to help Google improve the relevancy of product listing ads for user queries. Google said GTINs can lead to more impressions and more conversions.

In mid-May, Google:

officially brought Shopping Ads to Image Search;added a “store pickup” link option for Local Inventory Ads to appeal to local shoppers who want to buy online and pick up in-store; andannounced inventory search in local knowledge panels for users to be able to see if an item is in stock at their local retailer. The feature is automatically available to retailers running Local Inventory Ads.

Product Listing Ads come to image search..

Conversion attribution models in AdWords

This change wasn’t necessarily splashy, but it’s significant in that it gives marketers another way to move beyond last-click attribution. Search marketers can now set different attribution models — including the new data-driven attribution model — for individual conversion events in AdWords.

Microsoft to buy LinkedIn

The mid-June announcement that Microsoft plans to buy LinkedIn for $26.2 billion caught people by surprise and a minute later had us all speculating about what it could mean for advertisers and for Bing. At SMX Advanced, Microsoft’s general manager of global search sales and service, Lynne Kjolso, said discussions around advertising are happening internally but that LinkedIn will be guiding those decisions as it remains a separate business unit.

Bing Ads Editor for Mac arrives

Bing finally launched Bing Ads Editor for Mac in June. It’s available in beta in the US and will be rolling out to all markets. The launch is significant in that it relieves a big barrier to entry for Mac users and highlights a major shift in engineering priorities at Bing Ads since the separation from Yahoo.

Honorable mentions

App parity: At the end of January, Google finally launched an iOS app for AdWords. Now advertisers can access Bing Ads and AdWords apps on both Android and iOS.Redesigning the AdWords interface: Okay, this was a big announcement, made in March, but for now, this is an honorable mention. We know it’s coming, some accounts have alpha access, but at this point it’s not something that’s affecting a advertisers in a meaningful way. Several search marketers did share with us what they hope to see from the newly designed UI — more to come in the second half of 2016.Google Analytics 360 Suite was unveiled in March. New in the premium suite are the long-awaited data management platform (DMP), a landing page testing/personalization tool and a custom reporting tool. A free version of the reporting tool, Data Studio, went live in May.Ad bans: In May, Google said it would ban ads for payday loans and high-interest loans as of July 13. Later that month, Bing Ads announced it would no longer accept ads from third-party tech support services, citing “serious quality issues.”Purchases on Google (aka the Google buy button) is still in testing. Google said e-commerce sellers such as Ralph Lauren, Ugg and Staples are among those testing it. Staples now has 95 percent of its products included in Purchases on Google.Google brought its new app streaming technology to Trial Run ads for app installs in March. Users can experience a bit of an app before deciding whether to download it.Ad cards: There was no announcement here, but it’s something to think about. Google has been using cards in various ad formats for some time — think those product cards that look like knowledge graph panels — but there could be much more to come. In May, users spotted a test in which mobile sitelinks were served in a carousel of cards. At SMX Advanced, Google’s Sundeep Jain touched briefly on how they are using cards to serve content in mobile text ads. We can then speculate about new delivery methods and ad placements in the search results.Yahoo, facing an impending sale, has made no notable announcements about Gemini’s search capabilities so far this year. The company announced at a NewFronts event (closed to press this year) that it was expanding its ad viewability measurement capabilities and guarantees in Yahoo Gemini native video.

That’s a wrap for the first half of 2016. These announcements have set the stage for a very busy next half.

Bing's "Search Wave" Showcases Search Volume For 2016 Presidential Candidates

Bing is gearing up for tomorrow’s Super Tuesday state primaries with the launch of its new “Search Wave” feature, a search tool that showcases search volume for each of this year’s presidential candidates.

Building on the Bing Elections that rolled out in December of last year, Bing says the new election feature provides a “window into public search interest for each candidate.”

The new feature offers at-a-glance candidate search numbers overall, as well as the ability to break down candidate search volume by state, age and gender.

Here’s a look at the “Search Wave” feature, filtered by state and party:

Users can also drill down to see overall search volumes for individual candidates:

Powered by its Bing Predicts technology, the “Search Wave” feature is part of the site’s broader election experience, which includes candidate pages, a political index and an election timeline. Users can access the tool by searching on Bing for “candidate search volume.

Bing Results & Ads Now Live On AOL Search

It was announced last year, but now it’s official: “Bing powers AOL’s web, mobile, and tablet search, providing paid search ads and algorithmic organic search results to AOL’s properties worldwide.” Citing comScore data, Microsoft now says that Bing is behind “close to one-third of US PC web searches.”

Beyond providing web search results for Siri on Apple devices, most of the Bing search volume is on the desktop. Last April, Bing crossed the 20-percent market share threshold on the PC. Today, it stands at just under 21 percent. Adding in Yahoo organic, and now AOL results, Bing is responsible for something like 34 percent of organic search results versus Google’s nearly two-thirds.

Last year, Bing and Yahoo, under the terms of a renegotiated deal, agreed that 51 percent of Yahoo algorithmic results must carry Bing Ads. That doesn’t extend into mobile, however.

In mobile search, Google is more dominant than on the PC, with more than 90 percent market share, according to StatCounter. Even if this isn’t entirely accurate, it shows the significant gap in mobile between the engines.

Bing Top Trends In 2015: Serena Williams, Refugee Crisis & Pluto Searches Surge

GongTo / Shutterstock.com

Since posting its top searches for 2015, Bing has released a quick overview of its top trends, highlighting the search topics that saw the biggest spike in search volume this year.

Mirroring its top search results, women dominated Bing’s search trends — specifically women in sports, with the US women’s national soccer team, Ronda Rousey, Serena Williams and Caitlyn Jenner all highlighted among Bing’s top 2015 search trends.

Bing says it saw the transgender identity trend “like never before” after Caitlyn Jenner’s appearance on “20/20” and her subsequent “Vanity Fair” interview.

“Searches appeared to indicate an acknowledgment of Jenner’s gender identity as people searched 3-to-1 for Caitlyn Jenner over Bruce Jenner,” says Bing.

Another female athlete to rise in popularity on Bing was Serena Williams. The tennis star won 51 percent of the searches for professional tennis players on the site.

The EU refugee crisis also saw a sharp rise in searches, with people not only wanting to know more but also searching for ways to help refugees.

“Recent search volume continues to reflect interest in the situation and the evolving public discourse as people considered other aspects of the crisis,” says Bing of its refugee search volume.

NASA’s New Horizons space mission in July helped drive searches for Pluto, resulting in nearly a 160-percent increase in Bing searches for the (former) planet. The discovery of water on Mars did the same for the Red Planet, with “Mars” searches spiking more than 530 percent between August and September.

The Charlie Hebdo and November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris pushed searches for the city, with surges in searches for both “Paris attack” terms, as well as “Paris support” terms.

Along with its list of top trends, Bing also put together a 2015 news quiz.