Microsoft has unveiled a major update to its Bing search engine that transforms the way users search the Web. The update, the most significant since Microsoft launched Bing three years ago, is designed to help users act quickly by taking advantage of the Web’s evolving fabric.

With the new version of Bing, users will be able to easily get advice and recommendations from friends and experts with the new social sidebar. They can also view useful, action-oriented information via the new snapshot feature. And they can find what they’re looking for faster, with more relevant results and a refreshed user interface. All of this is presented in a new, three-column design that focuses on helping users take the leap from finding information to making quick, informed decisions.

“Increasingly, the Web is about much more than simply finding information by navigating a topically organized graph of links,” says Qi Lu, president of Microsoft’s online services division. “We’re evolving search in a way that recognizes new user paradigms like the growth of the social graph, and will empower people with the broad knowledge of the Web alongside the help of their friends.”

The new Bing updates were developed in response to user research showing that people use search engines to save time and get things done quickly. More than two-thirds of consumers use search to accomplish tasks, according to a Microsoft user survey. Yet 60% wonder whether they have found the best information available for what they’re trying to do, and 52 percent find themselves entering multiple queries and visiting lots of sites for searches that shouldn’t be so hard.

“People are using the Web to do things in the real world, and that’s a big change from where things were a decade ago,” says Bing senior director Stefan Weitz. “And so the 10 blue links that search has been predicated on for the last decade no longer makes sense. Simply put, that’s not how you get things done.”

The new features in Bing are designed to help people complete tasks combining the best information from the Web, rich data organised in a better way, and the input of friends and experts.

* Improved Web results: Consumers can perform traditional Web searches faster, with more relevant results using the new, cleaner user interface.

* Snapshot: Users can quickly complete tasks by viewing useful information related to their searches and compiled by Bing as a single “snapshot” – all in one place in a separate column.

* Sidebar: Consumers can take action based on the recommendations of friends and experts in the sidebar – displayed in a third column, separate from main Web results page.

When people search the Web, they want to find what they’re looking for and find it fast. Yet only one in four searches is satisfied by the first query. “So three out of four times, you have to do something else to get the answer you want,” says Weitz. “If your car only started one out of four times, you’d be pretty upset. Yet when searching the Internet, people have been forced to live with poor results.”

Eighty-four percent of consumers expect search to save them time, and 77% want search to help them accomplish tasks quickly, according to a 2011 Microsoft survey of more than 1 400 customers.

Yet consumers continue to suffer from less than optimal search results and an overwhelming amount of data:

* 68% use search to try to get things done.

* 66% feel that there is an overwhelming amount of data.

* 57% say their search sessions last longer than a day.

* 60% wonder whether they have found the best information available for what they’re trying to do.

* 52% find themselves doing a lot of searches and visiting lots of sites for searches that shouldn’t be so hard.

With Bing, engineers improved the relevancy of Web searches by removing unnecessary links and simplifying the results to the core set of information users are looking for. They also separated out most social network results from the main Web results. “Both Bing and Google were starting to jam social signals into the Web results, and it turns out it wasn’t that relevant and it was overloading users with clutter,” says Derrick Connell, corporate vice-president at Bing. “With this release, we’ve taken most of that out of the Web results and given users the traditional search results that they love and expect.”

While engineers worked to improve performance, a team of about 20 designers revamped the user interface to make it simpler and cleaner. “One of our goals with Bing was clarity of information,” says Robert Dietz, principal design manager for Bing. “We wanted to remove the noise and the extraneous information so that the real heroes on the page would be the results.”

Designers cleaned up the search results page by eliminating the left-hand panel and moving the “recent searches” section to the top of the page for quicker access. The “related searches” section has been moved to the middle column, next to the Web results. Removing the “left rail” and cleaning up the results makes it easier for users to scan the page and quickly find the information they want. “

Microsoft has also improved the search experience with “snapshot,” a new feature that displays useful information about a specific place or topic in one location in the middle column of the search results page. If a user searches for hotels in San Francisco, for example, in the main search results Bing will surface results for hotels including hotel star ratings, locations and average rates. Snapshot takes it a step further by letting people select check-in and check-out dates, see interior views of the property and read reviews to help them find and book the best hotel in the area.