For Google, the recent effort to mix social media with traditional search results is all about relevance — thus its efforts such as Google Social Search, which the company rolled out in experimental form late Monday. However, can the results really be that effective if they don’t include the full participation of the world’s largest social network, Facebook?
Social Search, according to Google, begins that hunt for relevance with the “social circle” chosen by you, the user. If you sign up for Social Search, you won’t notice much difference from the usual search results unless you add your Google Profile, your Gmail contacts and chat buddies and any feeds you’re enjoying via Google Reader. If those opt-ins include friends and family who are using popular social media sites Twitter, FriendFeed, LinkedIn and Flickr, then they’ll show up in your Social Search results. Of course, you have to have a Google account in the first place and be signed in to take part.
However, nothing will be turning up on those results that isn’t already public somewhere on the Web, according to Google representatives. That is the search engine’s attempt to dance on the data privacy tightrope that got Facebook in trouble with its members earlier in the year.
“When it comes to privacy, the most important thing to note about Social Search is that all the content that shows up as part of Social Search is already publicly available through Google.com and other search engines today,” Google produce manager Maureen Heymans told TechNewsWorld. “Social Search simply makes it easier to find relevant information from your social circle.”
The Google-Facebook Link
Even though Google did announce an agreement with Twitter to include tweets into search results at last week’s Web 2.0 summit, the industry is still waiting for a similar announcement involving Facebook. After all, Microsoft’s upstart search engine Bing was able to tell the world that it had sealed its deal with both Twitter and Facebook at the very same summit.
Some Facebook information will show up on social search, said Heymans, but it will likely be the limited data that anyone can access in traditional Google searches. “If someone links to their Facebook account from their Google Profile, Social Search may surface results from Facebook,” Heymans said. “These results would only include the same public profile pages visible already available on a search of Google.com and other search engines. All of the results that appear as part of Social Search are published publicly online — Social Search helps you find it more easily.”
Privacy may indeed be the sticking point between Facebook and Google’s attempt to integrate more real-time social media into its results, said Will Samolis, senior social media analyst with online marketing strategy firm TIG Global. Twitter’s default setting is public; you have to limit who sees your tweets. However, Facebook starts from a private launch point when you join the network, and earlier controversies involving private data given to advertisers may be making the company a little skittish when it comes to allowing status updates and other information to be included in search results.
“They’ve had issues in the past with changing things without asking their constituency,” Samolis told TechNewsWorld. “They’re big and growing fast. They’re going to have to change the (privacy) terms and conditions for members moving forward. They can’t retroactively do it now to ensure members’ privacy. I don’t think a lot of people want that sort of public data on the Web. They’ve created a Facebook profile to reconnect with past contacts, not to broadcast their personal life on the Web.”
The Effectiveness of Social Search
Google’s statements make it clear they’re aware of those concerns, but they also see the value in integrating trusted social contacts with its search results. “Your direct social contacts are an important signal about what information might be most relevant to you. For example, a movie review from an expert is useful, but a movie review from your best friend might be even better,” Heymans said. “To put it simply, content from your social circle is often more relevant to you than content from strangers. Google Social Search takes social connections as a helpful signal to improve search quality.”
Just like contextual advertising, there is contextual value in friends, family and business contacts that double as news/information filters, agreed Lon Safko, social media entrepreneur/consultant and coauthor of The Social Media Bible. However, Social Search still has a way to go to fully realize the potential in mixing all that in with search.
“For personal use, it would be interesting if Google could deliver an aggregated search and pull from Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, comments from Flickr and YouTube, and serve them to me sorted by acquaintances,” Safko told TechNewsWorld. “But Google Social Search isn’t there yet. What they’ve done is simply taken the enormous amount of collected data from the Internet they’ve accumulated and sorted it by the searcher’s list of acquaintances. Clever, but I don’t think disruptive.”
Social Search does highlight for Safko the power that is now available to social media participants thanks to the Internet. “No longer does the big corporation control their message, control their markets, or control their customers,” he said. “The shift has allowed the individual, the Internet social citizen to take control over the corporate communications. Recommendations by a friend are some of the most powerful influences out there. Google Social Search, I think, will add significantly to this shift in power. “