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Bing adds context to people, places with 'snapshot' feature

Bing is poised to function like a souped-up Yellow Pages, with visual search results offering more information about professionals such as lawyers and doctors.

The Microsoft-owned search engine announced an expansion Monday to its index of the Web, with 150 million new entities, including doctors, dentists, lawyers and real estate. Instead of just a link, results for those searches will be presented as a visual card with information such as the professional's specialty and education, as well as address and phone number.

Bing calls the display "snapshot," which is designed to provide more useful information at a glance while incorporating the connections between topics as Bing indexes more of the Web. The snapshot appears in the right panel of the results page.

The snapshot feature does not appear every time -- some searches for dentists still displayed the traditional layout of links Monday. But when it does work the information is useful, providing background experience from the person's LinkedIn profile, as well as lists of similar doctors, courtesy of public data from Vitals.com and the National Plan & Provider Enumeration System.

If Bing's snapshot feature sounds familiar, that's because Google, by far the dominant search engine, has been enhancing its presentation of search results for some time, as it moves to scale out its knowledge graph.

Bing, meanwhile, is working toward a similar goal, to deliver more contextual information that users may not have asked for, but that is interesting and useful. "While comprehensiveness is important, we are not only interested in the items themselves, but the relationships between them," said Richard Qian, of Bing's index and knowledge team, in the search engine's announcement.

To provide context, Bing pulls in data from services across the Web such as Wikipedia, LinkedIn, IMDB and Netflix. That means that searching for information about the actor Tom Cruise will display a card similar to a doctor or lawyer's, with details about his romantic relationships and movies.

Bing is also working to better understand natural language, so a search for "Who is the CEO of Apple?" returns "Tim Cook" at the top of the page.

Bing's language processing is also a work in progress. A search for "Who were former CEOs of Apple?" did not display any results front and center apart from links. (To be fair, Google didn't return anything beyond links with this query either.)

Bing also wants to become more anticipatory. The search engine said advancements in its natural user interface such as gesture and voice would allow it to proactively remind people to pick up dinner on the way home, or help users plan a vacation while keeping weather data and flight prices in mind.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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