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Google staking a claim on Social Search

February 18, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

This morning as I routinely ran my first Google search over my first cup of joe, I was surprised to see a new section showing up for my searches: results from my social circle.   Although this is still in beta and does not show up for all queries, it portends the mainstreaming of so-called “social search.”  It is a powerful paradigm and seeing it work for a routine web query woke me up faster than the caffeine could.

The Origins of Search

The first internet information services of the mid-90s (like Yahoo.com) evolved much like “yellow pages,” to be directories of web sites categorized by humans.    If you needed a plumber or information on General Motors, you would drill down a taxonomy tree until you found a link to a website that would launch you to the resource.  Then arrived web-spiders (and there have been several like Lycos, Hotbot, and yes Google) that essentially crawled the interlinked pages of the web and created indexes so you could search with near-natural-language queries like “recipe for apple pie” and pretty much get what you wanted in one or two clicks.  Google did this especially well and delivered precise results, quickly, and via a very clean interface.  When it first showed up, Google was remarkably different from other search engines.  The clean interface came from not having advertising banners which is what everybody else was using.  The question then asked was: how will they ever monetize their growing traffic?

This is when they brilliantly delivered a scheme to auction sponsored links based on the search query (AdWords): keywords like “coffee” and “wine” became a tradeable dynamically priced valuable good.  As they got better at it, they acquired innovation from companies like Applied Semantics to deliver a product called AdSense that examines the context of any web page and delivers relevant ads.   If you were on a blog page looking at reviews of cameras, you would see ads for cameras and retailers selling them.  Both these technologies, supported by excellent search have made it the powerhouse it is today (a market cap of $170B just 5.5 years after their IPO)

Advent of Social Networks

Alexa reported pageviews for Google vs Facebook and Twitter

Alexa reported pageviews for Google vs Facebook and Twitter

Fast-forward to the late 2000s and services like Facebook and Twitter are now generating a lot of buzz and page views. The question often asked is how are these social networking sites going to make money.  Facebook has ad revenues kicking up and both have dabbled in business-to-consumer marketing revenues.  The mother lode that they need to tap into is social search, which is the delivery of information as relevant to your life.   Search in its classic form uses linguistic processing to determine relevance.  Contextual search has used semantic and browsing history to refine search.  Social search adds the dimension of context derived from knowing what you have been doing, what your friends are doing and where all of you have been in both the physical world and the online world.   If I was looking for “good steakhouse in New York,” I am presented with not just the list of results but also qualifiers like “Your friend Bob was at Peter Luger’s and you can read his review here.”  As social animals, it has been proven that we gravitate towards recommendations from people we know and trust or tastes we identify with.   Several e-commerce majors and retailers are already reporting more referrals from Facebook and Twitter than from Google searches.  Ostensibly, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are best placed to leverage our social context and deliver plum advertising opportunities.  But then, are they?

Google’s next move

Let us examine the social asset base built up in these networks:

  • Facebook: Personal connections, chat, more photos than Flickr, videos, and intimate details of your travel and entertainment habits
  • Twitter: Personal connections with a fine-grained timeline of mundane events in your life, “chatter”
  • Linked-In: Professional connections, business travel, events
  • Google: Search, e-Mail, chat, voice calls, voice-mail, photo sharing, and blogging

Of the various players, Google clearly has the largest footprint although the others are catching up.   Now with Google Buzz, folks at the Googleplex are able to import what they do not already have in their realm (including Facebook and Twitter messages) to gain complete access to social context.   Buzz allows you to automatically add people to a social network based on interactions vi

However, this will not be easy for Google.  There are the attendant privacy issues which have always dogged their technologies.  Providing  context to search entails knowing the context and often storing it someplace.  Personally, I have always evaluated the trade-off between privacy concerns and functionality and decided that some of these new technologies are worth the sacrifice.    My larger concern is execution risk.   Google has not done well with social technologies and as one eminent blogger said, “Google and Social, like nerds at the dance.”    Facebook is still learning its lessons after constantly butting heads with its vast user base every time it made a change to monetize user-generated content.   Google stumbled out of the gates last week when it first launched Buzz to a few users.   They are still correcting course but as my experiences with early versions of their rendition of social search shows, they are not willing to cede this lucrative market to Facebook or Twitter without a fight.

The larger question is whether I want my search to be social or do I want my socializing to yield search results?

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Categories: Media, Technology
  1. Shyam Kamadolli
    February 23, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Amazing new article on the innards of Google and also starts discussing Microsofts response. How Google&s Algorithm Rules the Web http://shar.es/mm6oB

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