Stefan Weitz will be giving the keynote at SearchFest 2010, which will take place on March 9th at the Governor Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Tickets are available now. To purchase, please click the following link.

1) Please give me your background and tell us what you do for a living.

I’m your classic geek. I began writing code at 8 and went downhill from there. Arrived at Microsoft at the impressionable age of 22 and have been here ever since.

People ask me all the time why I’m still here – I’ll pen a blog post about that at some point but in short, it’s because I need to be at a place that lets people go nuts with ideas, has the resources to fund calculated flights of fancy, and lets me do over a dozen very different gigs over my career – all while getting free Fresca.

Today for a living I generally practice respiration and am thankful for autonomic cardiac function. Beyond that my current job is multifaceted: think of me as that guy the King sends out on the battlefield to check on the incoming forces. Only in this case the incoming forces are search technologists, journalists, analysts, academics, startups, and competitors.

The other big distinction is that they rarely carry flaming arrows. I work to understand what people are doing around the world that will lift search from its current model into one that us science fiction geeks read about daily – an intelligent, intent-driven broker for knowledge. Then I get to come and talk to you nice people about that and listen to what you have to say all while maintaining MVP Gold Status on Alaska Airlines (FTW!)

2) In this interview with Gord Hotchkiss, you acknowledged that Bing has yet to differentiate itself significantly from Google in the eyes of web surfers and that 2009 was “setting the table” for the future. When will we be able to see a unique & distinct Bing “flavor of search” and any hints as to what that flavor might be like?

a. Ah yes, Gord and his “gotcha journalism”. (I’m kidding…) We have to reconcile two facts: 1) search as we’ve all grown to know it needs to change. Far from just finding pointers to interesting articles, the web is now the ‘transport’ that enables people to conduct tasks that were previously confined to the physical world in an efficient, near real-time virtual manner. 2) people don’t like change.

When new engines have tried radical approaches to what people traditionally think of as search, audiences tend to abandon quickly. So what we have to do is continually deliver a killer core experience that meets the traditional needs of searchers, but attempt to also provide a non-intrusive ‘hook’ for people to explore what more Bing can do for them.

You can already see this with things like our new Answers for entities (look for Boston, for example, and see the intelligence we pack into the top box) or how we subtly try and direct you to our Travel experience when we see your intent leaning towards travel scenarios.

That is the key for us: we are trying to pivot the user experience based on the expressed intent – either implicit or explicit. But it needs to be subtle so as to not dissatisfy people when they’re just trying to find the nearest Stumptown location. It’s a challenge, but that’s what I like to do.

3) I’m a big Portland Trailblazers Fan and I do a “Bing Search” for them. My first thoughts are…”Wow, this page got way too much going on”; “Related Searches have run amok” & “The results at the bottom are of poor quality.” Please offer your critique of these SERPS.

Well I can tell you that we’re always looking at ways to improve the UX here. In this case, let’s take a look at the SERP with a visual aid. And not to get all defensive, but this is kind of what I talked about above. We’ve become accustomed to search results being austere and simple – when in actuality a query like “Portland Trailblazers” is actually very ambigious and has multiple possible intents.

Our goal is to try and the help the user refine their query or proactively suggest answers to help with those intents. But let’s look at the page to see what we’re doing here:

  1. The “Quick Tabs” are actually the most common refinements we see people making after they initially query for “Portland trailblazers”. So we highlight those since they are very common intents and we actually break the results up into those categories. It definitely has implications for SEO since we rerank the results within each ‘tab’.
  2. The “Answer” makes an assumption that you probably want to see more than just the official site. Like scores. And how badly you get beaten.
  3. The “Core SERP”: We try to put the official site at #1. That worked.
  4. Multimedia is one of the top 4 things consumers request (along with speed, relevance, and captions). Knowing we have these in our index, we promote them higher in the SERP.
  5. News and real time content pops.
  6. The categories I’m talking about. Note how we try and pull results within each of the common refinements to give you a more comprehensive result than a bunch of random algo results.
  7. The Reference answer is something I’d like to highlight. When we see a definitive term, we scan our natural language-augmented vertical and pull that content back in.
  8. Related Searches at the side and bottom. Yeah, I’m not sure why we do that except that I know people have been trained to look at the bottom by….other….engines. We actually see tremendous interaction with the left-rail placement. But I can see how this is confusing.

All that said, it is a fairly comprehensive – some might say confusing – page. As I alluded to above we obsess about interaction on the page and nearly every pixel is instrumented. You’ll see changes in the future as we get smarter about what’s working where.

4) Google’s “Social Search” initiative seems to suggest that SERPS from people within your social network have added value and relevance. What’s your take on this and how does Bing plan to integrate people’s social networks into search results?

We think about the social graph in a number of ways. First, taken in aggregate the social networks can provide us good clues about spiky queries – when we see the new “Windows Phone Series 7” blowing up Twitter, that could serve as an important signal in query parsing and result ranking.

Second, people are turning to search for more than info, they’re turning for answers (opinions, recommendations) that might not have a definitive. Problem is, computers still aren’t good at this. So they turn to friends.

In the past, they’d use mail or the phone to get recommendations. Now the power of the RTW and social comms enables rapid, trackable, and more dispersed decision making online that does something many of us have dreamed of: augmenting the human capabilities for negotiating ambiguity and understanding relevance with technology that provides instant, simple, and global collaboration. Whether putting them directly into a SERP where people have been trained to ask definitive questions is the right thing, I’m not sure.

So keep watching Bing – we have some interesting takes on leveraging the social network to augment decision making using search coming. If I say more than that, the Windows-branded Ninjas will crash through my window and make me drink Diet Mountain Dew.

5) Bing Cashback was IMO a reasonably creative & innovative way to bring people to Bing. How has that worked out for you and are we going to see further non-traditional ways to increase market share?

We have many creative ways to get people to, what our marketing folks say, ‘drive trial’. It’s important that we get people to Bing and try queries that they wouldn’t necessarily expect to work on an engine where we have a really great experience.

Cashback is a good example of this – how can we get people to come and try our Shopping search and experience the power of things like our aggregated Opinion Ranking (which is a remarkable piece of computer science, if I do say so myself). We do see people who use Cashback more than a few times becoming a more consistent user of Bing.

You will absolutely see us trying new ways to drive awareness of Bing’s differentiation as a decision engine – one of my good friends just got brought over from another group to lead that effort. But that’s really a key point: it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not about taking share from any one engine – it’s about growing the overall market. It’s about expanding people’s notions of what search can do and then delivering useful experiences that can help people actually get things done in the physical world.

6) Google has taken many stances (e.g. Paid Links) that has made people in the Search Marketing community angry. Matt Cutts has done an awesome job liaising but I doubt Matt has overcome “Google as Big Brother” in minds of many. How would Bing handle similar SEO-related controversies & the fallout they sometimes cause?

When you’ve got something that impacts nearly every web-user on the planet, you’re bound to do things that make at least one of your constituencies unhappy. Our motto is pretty simple: “Tell the truth. Even when it sucks.” That’s why me and my team are always on Twitter.

We’re on Facebook. You don’t have to look too hard to find my work email address and my cell phone isn’t far from there. We’re going to explain our reasoning as best we can in as many places as we can but we’re not going to make everyone happy all of the time. The person in charge of webmaster and ecosystem, Eric Gilmour, is also professing his love for ‘radical transparency’ (in truth, I don’t know what that means – I mean, I don’t really think there are shades of transparency, but I digress). And he has some great plans around this.

So in short think of us as a well-funded startup – one that listens to our customers with a ridiculous level of fanaticism and tries to do the right thing that benefits the most of the people most of the time. And when we screw up, we’ll tell you.

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