Has Curation Finally Arrived?

Curation, as in content curation, digital curation, search curation and so forth has been all the rage in 2011.

But nothing says that curation has finally arrived, than this recent Dilbert cartoon below:

Dilbert.com

Has curation reached the tipping point?  What do you think?

The Social Search Buzz Dance

Today I was looking at the recent trend in social media buzz about “social search”.  I saw something that was interesting to my eye.

Social buzz on "social search"

The blue line in this graph is the overall mentions of the phrase “social search” in all blogs tracked by BlogPulse.com

The orange line is the portion of mentions of the phrase “social search” and Google.

The green line is the portion of mentions of the phrase “social search” and either Microsoft or Bing.

I noticed a few things:

  1. The buzz in blogs about “social search” overall tracks closely to work done by Google or Microsoft in that area.
  2. The spikes in buzz are usually related to some news or announcement from one of these companies.
  3. The spike in buzz on Jul 15th is related to an accidental reveal of an internal social search engine research project at Microsoft (first discovered by Fusible, and then picked up by Search Engine Land, and covered in many outlets including here at Bing Watch and Microsoft-Watch).

There are a lot of startups and other entrepeneurs working on social search related technologies and services.  Do these generate any buzz at all in social media?

Social media buzz on "Social search" - buzz generated about something other than Microsoft's or Google's work

In this trend graph above, the blue line is the same as with the first trend graph on top, and the orange line is buzz about “social search” that does not mention Google, Microsoft or Bing.

There’s a trickle of non-Google, non-Microsoft buzz regarding “social search”.

But the overall public discourse on “social search”, the social search buzz dance if you will, is dominated by Google and Microsoft.  I see this as further evidence that “social search” as we are currently viewing it in the market will be mainstream search engine features, as I wrote about it in this post on The Evolution of Social Search.

In related news, my startup Zakta, officially announced the public availability of SearchTeam.com, the world’s first real-time collaborative search and curation engine.  It is the first search engine on the Web to allows friends, classmates, family members, colleagues and other trusted people to search together and find and share what they need.

Here is a (~1 minute) concept video that shows the idea behind SearchTeam:

Here is a (~ 3 minute) guided tour video of the capabilities of SearchTeam:

For those of you who prefer to browse through a set of screenshots at your pace, rather than watch the videos, here’s a pdf file with annotated screenshots of SearchTeam.com.

Early reviews have been quite positive, with promising applications of SearchTeam in School, at Home and at Work.  I’d like to personally extend my gratitude to all of you who have tweeted, blogged or otherwise shared SearchTeam with your social circles.  Innovation like SearchTeam can thrive only through the support of people like you.  Thank you for your support!

Social Search and Bing

Bing recently made major updates to their social search capability which leverages their relationship with Facebook.  With this latest update, Bing now uses “Likes” from a user’s Facebook Friends, as well as the collective wisdom gained from opinions of users at large, to better rank and present search results.

As reported widely, Bing’s updates also includes the availability of the Bing Bar, which makes it easy for users to Like any page on the Web. This is another source of social signals for Bing. On the heels of this major update to Bing.com, Microsoft has also added social search features to its mobile search as well.

Equally noteworthy has been the aggressive ad campaign around the themes “Bing and decide with your friends“, and “Friends don’t let friends decide alone“.

In the days following these major updates to Bing, there’s been a lot of discussion on the impact of these changes to the search landscape.  Here are a few topics related to this, that interested me greatly:

  • Users seem to like these new social search features in general. But is this enough to convert regular Google search users to Bing?  This is covered in a good post at Brafton.com.
  • All these social search additions from Bing (and earlier from Google) are changing the nature of search itself. The social impact on search was a hot topic at SEMPO, and that is covered well at this post from SearchAdvisory.net.
  • So, who is creating the most social search engine now?  Google or Bing?  This is a topic covered in this post, also from SearchAdvisory.net.
  • Twitter is impacting Web search results.  Facebook is altering Web search results.  Other social signals are increasingly changing the search results we see from Google and Bing. SearchEngineWatch has a collection of posts on this page related to this topic of how social signals are impacting mainstream Web search engines.
  • With Bing’s aggressive integration of social search, comes the natural question around the impact of the Facebook-Microsoft alliance on Google.  This AdAge article calls out why Microsoft’s Facebook alliance is a real threat to Google.

In my blog post on The Evolution of Social Search, I predicted that “Social Search, as we now know it, becomes a mainstream search engine feature”. Bing’s recent social search moves seem to cement that claim.

The current wave of “social search” has been around the concept of using social signals of recommendation from friends and the Web at large to alter the rank ordering and presentation of Web search results.  Good strides have been made in this regard, and I expect even more activity and integration from Google and Bing in the coming months.

My startup, Zakta, has taken the next steps in deepening social search.  Where the current generation of social search involves leveraging signals of recommendation from friends / social connections in presenting Web search results, SearchTeam.com from Zakta enables users to search the Web together with their friends and other trusted people.  SearchTeam provides the capability for friends to search together, classmates to research together, for colleagues to work together, in real-time or asynchronously, curating the best search results together from the Web.

Just as the current generation of social search features promises to improve the quality of search results for transactional searches and some simple informational searches by leveraging social signals, SearchTeam delivers the social search solution for improving the quality and experience and value of deeper informational searches through its collaborative search and curation paradigm.

What is your take on social search and its long term impact on the search landscape?

The Evolution of Social Search

I was going to write a post earlier this year about social search, and it was going to be titled: “Does anyone care about social search anymore?“.  I was genuinely wondering what had happened to the “social search” meme, which was all the rage in 2009!  As it turns out, I never did write that post.  And just as well.  You can see why in this BlogPulse trend graph below:

You will notice two spikes in the trend graph, one in mid-February, and another in early April.

In mid-February Google announced deeper integration of social data from Twitter, Flickr, and Quora.  MG Siegler wrote this on TechCrunch about this mid-February social search update:

What Google is sort of downplaying as just an “update” to social search, is actually much more. Google is taking those social circle links at the bottom of the page, pumping them with social steroids, and shoving them towards the top of results pages. For the first time, social is actually going to affect Google Search in a meaningful way.

In early-April, Google announced its +1 button to rival Facebook’s Like button.  I wrote about this in this earlier post on Social Search and Google +1.

… Google has demonstrated that they consider social signals as an important element of their ranking of search results.  So, does the Google +1 launch officially make Google a social search engine? 

After a long lull in “social search” buzz, we hear two big announcements related to social search in the span of two months in 2011 from Google.  What does this mean for “social search”?  It will be fair to say that “social search” is a real phenomenon, and is rapidly evolving.

By the way, other people have pondered about the evolution of social search over the past few years, and here’s a couple of earlier posts on this topic you might find interesting:

  • October 2010, Lauren Fisher, TNW Social Media: The Evolution of Social Search – Lauren wrote about the potential business impacts of the emerging social search phenomena. Among the observations Lauren makes is this: “The impact that social search can have on the SEO industry is huge, and it represents a fundamental shift in the way this operates. While SEO has typically been a longer-term strategy, often taking weeks of months to see the fruits of your labour, social search has changed all that.”, and clearly, we are seeing signs in the SEO market that the impact of social on search is a key part of modern SEO work.
  • March 2011, Jeniffer Van Grove, Mashable: The Future of Social Search – Jeniffer argues that since search is rapidly changing, so is social search and that we should be thinking of social search in broader terms than just “socially ranked search results”.  Her parting remarks in this post: “We’re just now scratching the surface of what’s possible when one’s expanding social graph becomes intertwined with search. But as time goes on, the social search experience will be so fluid — it will seem more like discovering than searching — we won’t even know it’s happening.

Here is my own take (thoughts and predictions) about the evolution of social search:

  • Social search, as we now know it, becomes a mainstream search engine feature:  It is evident that Google is fully integrating social signals to alter their search results ranking.  We can only expect this integration to go broader (more social signals) and deeper (better integration of social signals).  This will drive a flurry of interest and activity on the part of companies and content creators to learn and incorporate “social search” related elements in their own online content and marketing strategies.
  • Aggregate social signals will continue to impact search result ranking: I think that using aggregate social signals to alter search result ranking is an idea that is here to stay – this is what Zakta.com does, and the reason for this is that this can be done in a way where the value can be delivered without getting destroyed by privacy issues or spam issues.
  • Social circle recommendations will aid a minority of search results:  I think that integrating signals of recommendations of people from my social circle into my search results is interesting – but the percentage of queries for which a user’s social circle has a meaningful recommendation will be low, and this is due to the very nature of the wide range of topics we typically search for, and the constitution of our social circles
  • Privacy concerns will hamper broad adoption:  I think that a large percentage of users are going to be concerned in opening up their social circles and content flows from within them to mainstream search engines. In turn, this will be a hurdle for broad adoption of social circles into search.
  • Facebook social search will be here:  Social search won’t remain just in the bastion of search engines.  Facebook will be a huge player in this.  As I see it, Facebook has at least two major assets as it pertains to social search: (1) a growing base of registered users with their growing social graphs, and (2) an enormous growing set of social signals fueled through a lot of social sharing within Facebook, their seemingly ubiquitous Facebook Like button, and new social sharing widgets they are deploying in the market.  How long before we see an innovative “social search” tool from Facebook that leverages all these massive assets they have!
  • Social search startups will innovate along different paths: Social search is a buzzword that has meant the incorporation of social search signals in search results.  But that is a rather limiting view of what can be possible when social and search are combined.  I think we can expect new solutions to enter the market that will vastly expand the definition and understanding of social search in the coming months and years.  I think that social search startups will innovate along different paths not taken by mainstream search engines so far.

Talking of different paths of innovation with social search, here’s a shameless plug for what we are doing at Zakta, my startup.  There are two directions that Zakta is taking which are different than mainstream approaches to social search:

  1. Curation:  I think that personal and social curation of search results is key to delivering relevance and ongoing value for informational searches.
  2. Collaboration: I think that real-time and asynchronous collaboration between trusted people (social circle / professional circle) is key to leveraging group knowledge and work as it pertains to informational searching and Web-based information research.

Zakta’s new service, SearchTeam, is a real-time collaborative search and curation engine that is based on the principles of curation and collaboration applied to the context of the informational search process / information research.  SearchTeam is not officially launched yet, but you can try it out today at SearchTeam.com.

What do you think about social search and where it is going?

Social Search and Google +1

A few weeks ago, the market was all abuzz with the announcement of Google +1.

Danny Sullivan wrote a customarily thorough article about Google +1 in this SearchEngineLand post:

The idea makes a lot of sense. If you’re searching, it’s nice to see if there are any answers that are recommended by your friends. Indeed, it makes so much sense that Google’s already been kind of offering this already through Google Social Search for nearly two years. But now these explicit recommendations become part of that.

Further in the article, Danny Sullivan talks about an aspect of Google +1 that is of great interest to me:

Social search signals, including the new +1 recommendations, will also continue to influence the first two things below plus power the new, third option:

  1. Influence the ranking of results, causing you to see things others might not, based on your social connections
  2. Influence the look of results, showing names of those in your social network who created, shared or now recommend a link
  3. Influence the look of results, showing an aggregate number of +1s from all people, not just your social network, for some links

Zakta.com, a personal and social search engine created by my startup Zakta (released in 2009) was based on three core ideas, parts of which overlap with what Google is now doing:

  1. Allow users to control their own search results (through Zakta Personal Web Search)
  2. Allow users to organize their informational search results and share them back with the search community (through Zakta Guides)
  3. Incorporate social signals from the user’s trust network and also in aggregate from the user community at large to improve search result ranking for everyone

It is heartening to see key elements of Zakta’s direction (particularly related to social signals from #3 above) from 2+ years ago be embodied in the world’s largest search engine today!

At their scale, Google has both problems and opportunities with their Google +1 direction.  The opportunities are quite evident:

  • Boosting their sagging (and broken / manipulated) Pagerank with social signals.  To their credit, Google has been quite aggressively doing this for over 2 years.
  • Apply this same +1 methodology to ads, and gain more social signals around ad relevance as well

The problems with this for Google at their scale include:

  • Manipulation of social signals – would it be that far behind before the SEO community figure out how to manipulate the signals derived from +1?
  • How to prevent Web search result ranking from becoming a mere social popularity contest?

Much has already written about Google +1 by others.  I’ve had a set of questions in this regard, which have been answered quite nicely by others:

  • How might Google use +1 data for search result ranking? In this post  How Google Plus One Works For Ranking, Ruud Hein writes probes the question of how Google Plus One data might affect search result ranking.  “Is there a correlation between relevance and social shares? Traffic and social shares? Are social shares maybe only relevant and correlated within one’s social network; you visit what I visit but outside of our relationship people could care less? Do pages with more links get equally more social shares? Are too many social shares a sign of web spam?
  • Can Google +1 be really competitive to Facebook’s Like? In this post Can Google’s Plus One Take On The Facebook Like?, Nick O’Neill writes: “With Google’s major influence, there’s no doubt that they will be able to get any online publication on the phone in a heartbeat. The only question now is how fast the search company can move. With no add-on for publishers available yet, it’s clear that Google has a long way to go before they put a serious dent in the massive lead that Facebook already has when it comes to measuring consumers’ interest in content around the web.
  • Can Google +1 Button succeed, given the lack of success from Google’s previous social solutions? In this post Google +1 Button – 5 Questions Surrounding Its Potential Success, Chris Crum at WebProNews summarizes the success potential for the +1 button as follows: “Facebook’s “like” button works because of Facebook’s social nature. Google’s nature is largely search. Google has also been careful to position the button as heavily search-oriented. Probably the biggest question of them all is: Do people care about interacting with search like they care about interacting with their friends?
  • Does Google finally “get” social?  In this post, Google +1 Button, Phil Bradley is very critical of Google’s +1 Button.  Citing problems with everything from the name of this feature to the fuzziness of who exactly is the social network that your +1′ing influences. “I’ve said it plenty of times before, and I’m saying it again. Google doesn’t understand social. They have absolutely no clue as to how it works, how to use it, or how to work with it. If Google has a downfall at any time in the future, this is what’s going to cause it. Orkut, Google Wave, Google Buzz, and now this latest mess.

All said and done, Google has demonstrated that they consider social signals as an important element of their ranking of search results.  So, does the Google +1 launch officially make Google a social search engine?  What do you think?

Does the Web need Collaborative Search Tools?

Search engine interfaces have historically been designed to let just an individual search the Web for their needs.  In over 15 years since the first Web search engine hit the market, search engine use has become ubiquitous, with many searches actually being collaborative in nature. But search engines have remained in the domain for individual use only.  Why are search engines designed only to be used alone?

Before answering this, I think it is useful to see if search engines really are being used collaboratively today? Let us look at one example in a bit of detail

Planning a vacation with friends / family: Whether it is spring break with friends, or a summer vacation with family, vacation planning involved web searching and communication, coordination and collaboration with friends or family members. When my family went on a summer vacation to Toronto, Canada recently, I had to engage my family members in the process, seeking input about places to go, places to stay, and myriad other details. Here’s how I ended up doing this job:

  • Suffering from Google addiction as many out there are, I googled many times to find interesting information about places in and around Toronto, day trips of interest, interesting places to stay etc.
  • I copied links of interest over into my email and pruned that list and would periodically pass it around for comments from the family
  • I visited many different specialty sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com, Priceline, Kayak etc. to find possible flight itineraries, and places to stay
  • And in turn, I copied interesting links of places to stay, as well as possible travel itineraries, in email and sent that around for comments from the family
  • My wife or son would pass along interesting links via email along the way from some searches they did, or tidbits they heard from other family members / friends who had been to Toronto before.  Some more conversations would ensue.
  • Many iterations of this, and many email conversations and many in-person conversations (where that was possible) later, many days from when we started this process, we arrived at the decisions we needed.  We had firmed up an itinerary, places to stay, details of places to see, day trips to try out, and lists of links of interest towards our visit (all scattered across multiple emails).

Does this sound familiar?  This is collaborative searching at work.  Albeit with search engines that weren’t built to support it.

Let’s look at another example in a little detail.

Researching a disease or medical condition: It is not uncommon these days to have a good friend or a family member get diagnosed with some new disease or medical condition. That kicks off the process of trying to learn more about the disease or condition, finding treatment options, and finding ways to cope with the condition.  Recently, in my family, a relative of mine was diagnosed recently with high cholesterol and diabetes at the same time. They reached out to me for input on food or lifestyle changes that might help with the management of the diseases along with their regular mainstream treatment. They were keen to know about herbs or supplements that might help, or how methods like Yoga or energy healing might contribute towards a return to wellness faster.  The process that ensued was like this:

  • I googled many different queries related to these conditions, and additional queries related to diet, nutrition, supplements / herbs, lifestyle changes, looking for good authoritative information that I could pass along
  • I started collecting links into an email and sent them along in small batches to my relative
  • In turn, I’d get emails back with links and questions about the legitimacy / believability of various claims made about certain supplements or herbs.  And I’d check them out to see the sources and citations and so forth and write back about each
  • Occasionally, they would find me online on Skype and reach out to me to chat about some additional things they had read.  In the process, we’d discover some more interesting resources to keep for future use, which I’d go copy into an open email or new email
  • Dozens of queries, hundreds of pages sifted, and many email threads later, we had collected dozens of links of use for my relative. They finally had the information they needed to make their own decision in concert with their doctor

Sound familiar again?  This too is an example of collaborative search in action today.

The problem with this is that, this process is inefficient, time consuming, prone to redundant work (people doing the same queries, seeing the same sites that were not useful etc.), and at the end of all this, the useful information is spread across multiple emails and possibly some instant messaging / chat sessions, and not easily discoverable or usable when you need to consult it later on.

Here are more examples at home or in other personal contexts, where I’ve run into this need:  Shopping for an appliance or a big ticket item;  Looking for a new home; Finding suppliers for a craft project;  Finding learning resources for gifted kids etc.

Plenty of such examples also exist in the academic context or business context as well.

What is common across all of these examples is that there’s more than one person involved in the finding, collecting, organizing, sharing or using of that information.  i.e. These are prime examples of collaborative searching, which cry out for a new breed of collaborative search tools.

So, yes, I think that the Web needs collaborative search tools now.  What do you think?

My startup Zakta, is about to launch SearchTeam (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Search Team), a real time collaborative search and curation engine.  It combines traditional search engine features, with semantics, curation tools, real-time and asynchronous collaboration tools to deliver the world’s first commercial tool for real-time collaborative searching with trusted people.  SearchTeam is designed from ground up to enable users to search the Web together with others they trust, curating, sharing and collaborating on what they need on any given topic.  I’ll be sharing more information about this in the coming days and weeks.

Search Quality, SEO, The Google Farmer Update and The Aftermath

The declining search quality on Google

In the last couple of months, the online world seemed to be buzzing about Google’s declining search quality.

Google’s Response:  The Google Farmer Update

In late February, Google announced a major update to improve search result quality, and tighten the screws on content farms on the Web.  This algorithmic update, dubbed the “Farmer Update” (presumably because it tried to address the issue related to content farms) has created a scenario with winners and losers, and has also left a trail of devastation.

Analysis of the effects of the Google Farmer Update

Given that nearly 12% of search results were affected by this update, many industry experts have chimed in with analysis of winners and losers in the aftermath of this Google Farmer Update:

  • Google Farmer Update: Quest for Quality – SEO company SISTRIX published a list of big losers (based on their SISTRIX VisibilityIndex, calculated from traffic on keywords, ranking and click-through rate on specific positions). Web 2.0 company, Mahalo.com is one of the companies in the losers list, which according to SISTRIX, lost nearly 70% of their top-ranking keywords on Google.
  • Number Crunchers: Who Lost in Google’s “Farmer” Algorithm Change? — Danny Sullivan wrote a comprehensive post analyzing winners and losers from this update, citing data from multiple sources.
  • Google Farmer Update: Who’s really affected? – SearchMetrics SEO blog shares analysis of specific sites that have been hurt badly in this update, including Suite101.com, Helium.com and others.
  • Google’s Farmer Update: Analysis of Winners and Losers – Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz shares his company’s analysis of the effect of this algorithmic update on the rankings of sites.  Of particular note is the analysis of possible causes factors that could have caused lost rankings.  Initial speculation is that factors like “user/usage data”, “quality raters’ inputs”, and “content analysis” are likely to be involved, and that “link analysis” of sites was not a likely factor.
  • Correlation between Google Farmer Update and Social Media Buzz — Liam Veitch at Zen Web Solutions has done some analysis on whether Google must have considered social buzz as a factor in determining site to whack or reward.  His initial analysis seems to support the hypothesis, but requires more study.
  • How Demand Media Used PR Spin to Have Google Kill Their Competitors — Aaron Wall at SEOBook.com presents a provocative analysis about how eHow (a service of Demand Media which had an IPO recently, and often cited in the context of content farms) not only escaped the Google axe with this update, but might actually be thriving in an environment where many competitors have been killed.

Collateral Damage?

There are a lot of sites that seem to have been caught up in this “cleanup” act of Google – collateral damage as it were, in Google’s act of slashing “content farms”.  Here are some sample comments from site owners on various blogs that are telling:

My Personal blog was almost completely removed from Google’s SERPs.

Searching for my name IN QUOTES will not pull up my Blog (url is the same exact as my name).

I didn’t do anything to my site, nor did I do any SEO (white or black hat) but my search traffic is now 1 hit a day from 15-20 a day.

Google probably axed a lot of innocents in this update.

BLueSS on SEOmoz.org

We made the Sistrix list and I am currently freaking out right now. We literally lost about 70% of our US-based traffic overnight. What’s worse, we are a discussion forum with editorial who employs absolutely no black hat techniques, no duplicate content, we’re really tough on spam, and I don’t know what on earth I can do to get back into Google’s good graces. I’m convinced we somehow got caught up in the mix because I was under the impression Google was targeting “content farms” and “Made-for-AdSense” sites, and not forums. In fact, like most forum owners, I was eagerly awaiting this update with anticipation because I thought it would help us sites that deliver 100% unique, quality content.

Dani of Daniweb.com on SearchEngineLand

Well, there may be anecdotal reports of recovery, but not for my site (freegeographytools.com; 4 years old, 100% original content all by me, no farming or scraping). Google referrals are still down 20%, and AdSense earnings are down 40%+, and the trend is downwards. Thanks, Google!

leszekmp on SearchEngineLand

The real impact on hundreds of thousands of small sites may not be known for a long time.  But this has turned out to be a situation where for every loser there seems to have emerged a winner – whether the winner was deserving to win or not, and whether the loser was deserving to lose or not will remain debatable for some time for many sites.

Is search quality all good now?

Turning to a question which I’m personally interested in … Ok, now that Google has deployed an update (that by some accounts has been a year in development), is search quality all cleaned up?  Noted sites has Technorati, Songkick, PRNewswire have all been hit in this recent update, and it is kind of difficult to consider them as being similar to content farms.  So, personally I’m not sure.  I’ve not run tests myself yet with the new update, so I can’t speak to this from personal experience yet.  Some commentators like AJ Kohn point out that this update was more about demoting content deemed of low quality, not promoting better content.  According to AJ Kohn, the results are different, not necessarily betterJoe Devon comments on a ReadWriteWeb post about this:

The new results are different, but not better. I think it has exposed that Google has an immense problem.

They’ve taken care of many of the open content farms…yes. But it just pushed up a bunch of scrapers that are being a little more low key than the content farms going public or selling for millions. Results are awful…

In the mean time, Google is claiming that they are working to help good sites caught by this cleanup operation.

The Google – SEO Industry dance

We’ve seen this dance before:

  • The SEO industry at large doggedly pursues the task of finding how Google’s ranking algorithms might be working, figures out loopholes in the process, and soon, large numbers of sites out there are exploiting those loopholes.
  • Search Quality declines, and the whining from users begins, and sometimes reaches a crescendo.
  • Google pays attention, comes back at it with some algorithmic updates, fixes some issues, opens up other issues, leaves some collateral damage along the way.
  • The SEO industry (again, I mean this broadly to include all manner of SEO specialists, white-hat, gray-hat, black-hat) goes to work again to learn about the ranking updates … and the cycle continues!

This is a classic cat-and-mouse game.

To think that a chunk of the business transacted online is dependent on this, or to consider that the livelihood of many small companies (maybe even larger companies too) or solopreneurs might depend on the outcome of this game at any given time – to me this is frightening!

What do you think?

Disclosure: Readers of this blog know that my startup Zakta, will soon officially launch SearchTeam, a real-time collaborative search engine that enables personal as well as collaborative content curation.  It represents a very different approach to solve the information search problem and the attendant search quality and search relevance issues.  I’ll be writing more about SearchTeam here in the coming weeks.

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