Social Search Is Only As Good As Your Friends (And That Could Go Either Way)

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If you missed it this week, Google made what amounts to a truly huge announcement regarding the incorporation of social signals into their search rankings.

Here’s their launch video introducing the new feature which they call “Search Plus Your World”

Some (including, most notably, Twitter) have called foul on this move because they believe it unfairly promotes Google+ at the expense of other social networks. A sentiment that many in the tech blogosphere seem to agree with.

Google has fired back saying, more or less, that it would love to include Twitter and Facebook but neither social network wants to play nice with them.

Whichever side you fall on, this is a big deal.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that brands could no longer afford to ignore Google+ because it seemed increasingly likely that a move like this was coming.

Google has a lot of power to compel people and brands to use Google+ because of their ability to, essentially, write the rules when it comes to how their search engine ranks and prioritizes results.

So, if Google wants to put Google+ results first for every search, they can more or less do that. Sorry. Just like they’ve been putting ads in that top spot for years. This is really nothing new.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center is calling for an FTC  investigation of Google’s tactics on anti-trust grounds, arguing that “Google uses its dominance in the search field to inhibit competition in other areas.”

I’m not an expert in that corner of the law, but I don’t necessarily view Google’s recent move as anti-competitive. (Feel free to leave a comment and tell me I’m wrong).

I tend to think that Google+ was never intended to compete head-on with Facebook and Twitter directly but rather was conceived as an identity system to provide a new set of relevancy signals that Google could incorporate into their core product: search. (something that Google has even hinted at in the past)

I would actually go a bit further and argue that Google+ and search are not even so much two separate products, but really two parts of the same product–Google+ has been and will always be mostly a way for Google to incorporate social signals into search.

But that’s all sort of beside the point, because here’s why Google Plus Your World is not yet really ready for primetime.

Social search is only as interesting as your friends are.

Right now, based on some really preliminary investigation, it seems to me that Google is treating all social feedback roughly the same.

If my friends (or at least the people I have in my Google+ circles) share or +1 a piece of content, webpage or product, then Google will rank that higher in my “personalized” results.

That would be great if all of my friends were geniuses. About everything. And only shared things that I would also deem to be worthwhile.

Of course that’s hardly the case. Google seems to think that if ANY of my friends +1 or share a piece of content related to a search performing, then, well, OBVIOUSLY, that should be my top result.

The problem is that some of my social connections likely know little or nothing about a particular subject (sorry friends) and just because they shared or +1’d something does not make them an expert.

This could actually get worse if Google incorporates social feedback from Facebook. People “like” things for all kind of reasons that often have very little or nothing to do with relevancy for a particular search result and this is such a lightweight (frictionless, if you will) indicator as to be nearly irrelevant.

Even worse yet, like, +1 and retweet are all signals in the positive direction (and of course, can also be used ironically or abused) so this can also tend to decrease diversity in the viewpoints we receive. If my friends all subscribe to one particular political viewpoint, this can quickly devolve into an echo chamber where I am simply no longer exposed to contrary points of view. Not good.

AND heaven forbid you’re only or mostly (virtual) friends with people who are boring, stupid or who lack taste or common sense. (I know your friends aren’t any of those things, but let’s pretend.)

Congratulations: your search results are now as dumb as your dumb friends.

But there’s hope!

Google already has the ability  to make social search quite a bit smarter. Here’s how.

I have a Google+ circle called “Thinkers” and others for particular topics such as “nonprofits,” “social media,” or “journalism and media.”

Instead of treating all of my friends as equals in determining what personalized results to show me, what if, for “social media” related searches, Google ONLY used signals from that circle of people that I have identified as being influential around that particular topic.

Additionally, what if I could choose to see “normal” search results but allow Google to incorporate social signals ONLY from my “Thinkers” circle to move some results to the top because these are the people I have identified as thought leaders or people whose opinion I actually WANT to influence my search results.

A couple of this tweaks and we would actually be getting somewhere.

Right now (in my opinion) social search is simply too dumb to be very useful (for consumers). There remains tremendous potential and we are definitely getting closer, but for now it seems that Google is trying a little too hard by pushing social at the expense of relevance. Not a great idea in the long run.

That said, if you’re a company that has been ignoring or under-investing in social while burning a lot of money on SEO and paid search, now might be a good time to re-evaluate and shift some of those resources to take advantage of some of these recent changes (but please please please, for everyone’s sake, try to actually understand and use social effectively, not just to game the system).

And finally, one last bit of good news: if you really hate Google’s new search results, you can easily turn them off. Just check your search settings and select “do not use personal results”.