Matthew Rothenberg

Brafton has reported on the rise of social search, and we’ve covered news about Facebook data offered within Bing results and Blekko’s social slashtags – two of the leading resources for searchers who want to know which results friends Like.

Here’s one Braftonian’s take on Bing versus Blekko, and the value of social search data.

First, let’s walk through the experience of using both Blekko and Bing to get results with social data.

When you want to conduct a socially powered search through Blekko, you have to log in, although it’s easy because you just log in via Facebook – you do not need to create a Blekko account. Even after you log in, you have to specifically ask for social results via the "/like" slashtag. For instance, you’ll need to put "Boston restaurants /likes" in the query box. After entering these queries, Blekko lists how many Likes each result got amongst your friends, and if you want you can open a pop-up box to see who Likes each result and when they Liked it.

On the other hand, Bing recognizes your Facebook data automatically if you are still logged into your account from your last Facebook visit. (You can enable or disable this recognition feature on the top right of the screen.) Then, Bing automatically includes social data in results.

Overall, Bing's social search experience should be more intuitive as you do not need to know how to use slashtags, and it will instantly recognize if you’re logged into Facebook. However, actually finding social results was difficult. It took me many search attempts before social results popped up, and when I tried to revisit a socially promoted result, it did not come up again even though I used the same query.

Blekko took some extra steps to get started, but then the process was simpler. With Blekko you are specifically asking to see what your friends Like based on your search, and each individual result list which friends Like it. This makes more sense to me in terms of integrating social results into search.

If we compare the quality of the results, I think it's clear Bing and Blekko both claim to offer social search, but they offer two different experiences.

Most of the time, I couldn't even find social results using Bing. I think this is because Bing treats social search as search with a social afterthought. The results were all relevant to what I wanted information about, but if I wanted to see results supported by my friends, Bing made it difficult.

Here's an image of my attempted Bing social search for NFL players Jim Harbough and Andrew Luck. Social data was hard to come – I found it the bottom of the page.

Social data on Bing searches was featured at the bottom of the results page.

On the other hand, searching in Blekko with the "/like" slashtag and the same keyphrases I used in Bing always gave me social data. Blekko is better if you want the Likes to dictate the results. The key was that the Like information was prominently displayed for every result.

Blekko's top results seemed to rank according to overall relevance above the number of Likes, so result No. 1 could have one Like, but then result No. 3 could have more than 20 Likes. But the Likes must’ve played into the ranking somehow. Some of the results in Blekko that got a lot of Likes didn’t necessarily help me find useful information.

Here’s a picture of search results for the "Red Sox" I got using the "/like" slashtag. The top result was the Red Sox homepage. Useful. But then there were also articles about the team from last spring in the top 10 results because friends of mine had Liked them when they were published, but the outdated content is not relevant now.

Like data is easy to find with Blekko's social slashtag.

Overall, I personally like Blekko's integration of the Like information for each individual result. If it's socially recommended results you want, Blekko offers a better way than Bing to view and make sense of the social information. Plus, I often thought Blekko gave me results I wanted.

I think Bing has some tweaking to do if it wants to be a part of the social search market. I checked and double checked to ensure my preferences were set up to display Bing social results, and it was still very difficult to find any.

Nonetheless, I don't necessarily think the average searcher is going to start making social search part of his or her everyday online experience, at least not yet. But I can say I preferred Blekko for social search more than Bing – and I think Like information is especially handy for local searches.

Local results seemed to yield the most useful social data when I was test-running both Blekko and Bing. For example, searches for information about the "Red Sox" or "Boston bars" (which interest me as a Boston resident) yielded more social results than searches for a new movie title or national news headlines. I think this local market is where social will make the biggest – or at least its initial – impact on the search industry.

Companies that want to catch clicks from searchers who are looking for a new sushi restaurant in the area, a cool place to check out some live music and other local-oriented offers are going to want social support for businesses and branded content. I think we might start to see more brands hosting contests and giveaways based on people Liking them on Facebook to boost social search results and their listings

That said, I’m still primarily using Google to search the web, and Google doesn't display any Like data to date. I'm interested to see new Google developments that will offer social recommendations in searches, especially for local search, which is supposedly a top priority for Google.

Matt Cutts recently suggested that Google is now taking social signals into consideration for ranking, even if it might not ever directly show Facebook data …Cutts says in a webmaster video:

"I filmed a video back in May 2010 where I said that we didn't use [social data] as a signal, and at the time, we did not use that as a signal, but now, we're taping this in December 2010, and we are using that as a signal."

Even as I wait to see what Google unveils, I definitely think that we should keep our eye on Blekko. For people who are relatively search savvy, it's easy to grasp the idea of the Like slashtag and modify your search results to find good recommendations from your Facebook friends.

Social search might very well become mainstream during 2011, and the rapidly rising Blekko could come into its own in the search market already armed with a social search option. I’m not sure I’ll call Blekko a game-changer, but maybe it should become a component of marketing game plans.