Bing APIs let you pick and choose the search you want
Blog|by Mary Branscombe|15 November 2017
Get your own version of Bing or just tap the power of search in your app
Want to put a customised web search on your own site or in an app? Microsoft is about to launch the Bing Custom Search service that was announced earlier this year. This goes beyond searching your own site and lets you give your customers a slice of the web that matches why they visit your site.
“We’ve taken the Bing Search technology and brought it to organisations so they can offer customised search experiences from their sites to their external partners and customers,” says vice president for Bing and Cortana Product Ecosystem Gurpreet Singh Pall. “We have a huge index of over 100 billion documents that customers can take advantage of. The idea is taking the power of our index and AI and technology, and letting people craft a custom search experience. If I’m in a specific industry, yes, I want visitors to see results from my site, but then I also want results from the web, but for my industry. I don’t want to see all the web, just what is valuable. It gives you a lot of power and control over what you want to show your users when they come to your domain.”
The custom search tools use both the Bing index and your domain index, and let you control the ranking of results in your custom search experience, blocking sites you don’t want and pinning sites or suggested queries that you feel are most relevant to your visitors.
If you’re creating a hotel site or a travel app, you can curate searches for restaurants and tourist activities in the correct town without irrelevant news stories for that area showing up in the results by choosing ‘slices’ of the web to search. You can exclude competitors’ sites, or ones that are simply off-topic, and the portal you use to customise your search also suggests relevant sites you might want to prioritise. Those suggestions are English language only, but you can pick sites in any language to include in the search.
When the preview was announced, Microsoft was looking for 200 companies to try it out; they’ve had over 20,000 organisations using the free preview service and so many searches have gone through it that the Bing team has had to reset the usage counter three times, most recently to 20,000 queries a month.
“People are doing so much more with this than we anticipated,” Pall told us. “People are coming to this because Google’s got rid of their search appliance and their site search; they have a custom search offering, but you only get it with ads. You don’t get ads with Bing Custom Search. Businesses don’t want to show ads. They don’t want signals from their website going to Google and those are required for ads. Or if they want to show an ad, they want it to be ads they control.”
It’s not just about ads for competitors showing up in a business’s custom search results, although that’s often an issue. “There are studies showing that if you start showing ads that distract people from the reason they came there for, it’s not helping the user experience. It’s helping neither the organisation nor the user,” Pall points out.
Having set up your customisations, you take the resulting JSON file that defines your Bing Web Search API endpoint and put it on your site, or in your app. If you don’t want to style the search experience yourself, Bing has added three different hosted user experiences and colour schemes since the first preview, and you can add your own logo alongside the ‘powered by Bing’ tagline.
Improvements to the web, image, video and news search as well as the autosuggest and spell check APIs are currently in preview for the Bing Search API v7. Pall calls these incremental improvements; there are more controls and filters in the image and video search APIs, for example, and some significant performance improvements.
“If you’re running search using our stack and our APIs, you want it to be performant and we’ve made v7 very, very performant. We’re caching the top queries coming through our APIs to be super performant.”
How Bing Custom Search works
There’s also a brand new API – for entity search. Entities are nouns; countries, planets, politicians, landmarks, the authors of books and the characters in them, movie soundtracks, restaurants and other local businesses, foods and ingredients, elements on the periodic table, ingredients in recipes and a myriad other people, places and things, plus the connections between them. “We have a large knowledge graph and entity repository, called Satori internally, and we’re shipping that as an API.”
Queries to the entity API return an EntityAnswer object with information about either a single named entity (or multiple entities if the search term matches several entities that need to be disambiguated) or a list of (US only) businesses that match a query like near me or in Brooklyn. The entity results include a short description that might contain relevant links plus the source of the data, a picture or addresses and telephone numbers, depending on whether it’s a person or a business you’re asking about, hints about the type of entity (is it a restaurant, a radio station or a sports team, say) and metadata like categories – the style of a restaurant or the occupation of the person.
You don’t have to show the entity details as a separate web search; instead you can display a list of results alongside your own content or highlight entity names and show a popup when visitors hover over the name. if you use a search box, URL encode the terms you send and use the Bing Autosuggest API so users get suggestions for entities that match what they’re typing.
To see the Entity Search API in action, try the demo app at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/cognitive-services/bing-entity-search-api/.
Entity Search API is currently in free preview, initially for US users; you can get a 90-day free trial key that supports 1,000 transactions per month, at up to 7 transactions a second. (Requests beyond those transaction limits will fail with a header indicating how long to wait before sending another request.)
How to use the Bing Entity API
On Bing, the entities are intricately connected together by the knowledge graph; actors connect to movies who have directors and soundtracks and sequels and genres, recipes have ingredients, planets are connected to other objects in the solar system and so on. You don’t get all of that through the Entity Search API; Microsoft has to be careful not to include so many Bing features that someone could build a competitor using the APIs. But the team is working on further APIs to expose more of the graph, Pall told us. “We think there are only two good, comprehensive knowledge graphs in the world and we have one of them.”
To learn more about Bing APIs contact the Bing team at Grey Matter: firstname.lastname@example.org or call: +44 (0)1364 655 133.
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Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things in between.
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