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?

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?

On The Ongoing Relevance Of Google Search Relevancy

Google Sucks All The Way To The Bank!” declared SEO Consultant Jill Whalen in her recent blog post:

It was done gradually over many years, but Google now provides organic search results that often look relevant on the surface, but either lead to made-for-AdSense content pages or somewhat sketchy companies who are great at article spinning and comment spamming.

Matt Cutts even admitted at a recent conference that Google web spam resources had been moved away from his team.  While I doubt Matt himself was happy about this, those whose bright idea it was are likely laughing all the way to the bank.

Later in the article, Jill Whalen wonders if Google has gone too far in ignoring relevance issues with its core search results:

Since their poor results are being talked about with more fervor outside of the search marketing industry, it’s possible that they have indeed crossed the line. Numerous mainstream publications and highly regarded bloggers have taken notice and written about the putrid results. While Google is used to negative press, the current wave of stories hits them at their core — or at least what most people believe to be their core — their search results.

Even though today Google is technically just an advertising platform that happens to offer Internet search, they built their reputation on providing superior results. Because fixing what’s broken in the current algorithm can’t be very difficult for the brilliant minds that work at Google (Hint: ignore all anchor text links in blog comments, for one thing), we can only assume that they don’t want to fix them — at least not yet.

Google made its mark by providing relevant results really fast. This excellence is what killed AltaVista and all the search engines of the day, and also effectively stifled search engine innovation from outside Google till date.

Google continues to thrive despite these issues with their core search product.  Google doesn’t seem to be losing searchers readily, and their commanding marketshare remains in tact.  Even Bing with all its marketing muscle, some thoughtful innovations and the Yahoo search deal, hasn’t been able to wean off too many searchers away from Google. Why?

One reason for this is what I call the Google seduction.  In short, people are hooked on Google through years of familiarity, and even if there were legitimate alternative search engines that people can use for different needs, Google is their starting point on the Web and they can’t make the habit change, at least not readily.

Another reason is that Google continues to introduce some innovations with organic search results. An example is this continuous push for the best top result or two, which has further brought to us “instant search results” (aka Google Instant).  It is awesome to get results in milliseconds as you type a query, but all that simply makes Google addicts like me get further addicted to it, and masks the real cost of Google searches, as we put up with poor results for our more involved or serious searches or commercially relevant searches.

Search guru Danny Sullivan wrote about this a few months ago in a post titled: How the “Focus on First” helps hide Google relevancy problems. Danny gives very specific examples of how Google’s results aren’t always relevant.  But Danny points out how Google is saved by he calls their “Focus on First”:

At its press conference, Google emphasized how people would move their eyes from what they entered into the search box to the first result that was listed, using that first result in a way to effectively judge if all the results they might get matched their query. Google’s really just got to make that first result hum, for most people, most of the time. If results 2-10 are so-so, it’s not a mission critical matter.

It shouldn’t be that way, however. We ought to get 10 solid results on the first page. That’s what I expect from Google. But maybe I expect too much. Maybe good is good enough, especially given how people search.

So, is this what we’ve come to with organic Web search results?  A good first hit, and then whatever else on the first page!  And we are to believe that this is how the vast majority of the world searches and satisfying them with a good first hit is enough!  Wow!  Unbelievable!

I have no doubt that Google’s relevance with organic search results will improve yet again, given the rise in negative commentary about it in influential pockets of the Internet.  However, the pertinent question to ask is this: Why would an advertising giant care more about relevance of organic search results any more than absolutely necessary to keep their revenue proposition in tact?  Or, asked another way, is search relevance ever likely to be as relevant as ad relevance to Google?

Personally, it is my belief that relevance in search is ultimately for the individual searcher to judge, and while it is important for a good search engine to deliver a strong set of relevant results from the get go, the Web has gotten complex enough that people will be better served by having a better set of tools to help them find and curate what they need.

What do you think?

At Zakta, my startup, we have developed a new search engine called SearchTeam that lets people search the Web together with others they trust. Our approach to improved search relevance is to deliver a suite of tools that enables people to find, collaborate and curate information they need from the Web easily.  Stay tuned for more information about SearchTeam here, and at the official SearchTeam blog.

The Google seduction – Are instant search results blinding you to the real cost of your searches?

I’ll admit it.  I’m hooked on Google!

To start with, back in 1999, I was impressed with the speedy and mostly relevant search results delivered by Google.  I got mesmerized by their growing coverage, the advanced tools, and mostly by their simple, uncluttered, spartan interface that never changed in years.  I got lazier and hooked even more when Google started suggesting queries I could use – now I don’t even type my query fully often, and pick from the query suggestions list instead.  My addiction to Google has only gotten worse with Google Instant, where I get results as I type (granted, that this thing works well some times, and is downright irritating at other times when it slows down my typing of the query).  There are these delightful situations where I type in the name of a company, and I get the company’s web site, address, phone number and a map, ready for use – exactly what I needed.  Examples like this abound.  In all, these are ingredients of the Google seduction!  Masterfully crafted tools and features that keep me hooked and coming back for more.

You know what I mean!  It’s highly likely, from seeing market share stats, that you, like me, are hooked on Google too!

If you’ve seen the previous posts here, you might have noticed that I’m an entrepreneur, and my team has created an alternative search engine that will be released to the market soon.  Why am I admitting to being seduced by and hooked on Google?  Because it is true, and it is a reality I expect to encounter again and again in releasing our brand new search engine to market soon.

As productive and as satisfying my searches like these are on Google, there are different types of searches I do often which are downright frustrating and painful.

Example 1:

Shopping for a laptop computerTake for instance the time when I wanted to find a good laptop suitable for use by son who was heading to college (this past summer).  I was buying a laptop after a 2 year gap, so I had to find out what laptop technologies were out there, research specific features of interest to us, find reviews of models, find deals etc. – the whole effort lasted many hours. During this time, I used Google out of habit, and had to wade through tons of irrelevant and commercially hijacked results.  It wasn’t easy keeping things together that I found interesting along the way, and it certainly wasn’t easy to share findings readily with my son.  And in parallel, my son did some searches and we couldn’t easily get in synch with our efforts.  Irrelevant results, lot of time spent in sifting through results, no easy way to save what was useful, no easy way to share, no easy way to find things together, and no easy way to pause the searching process and continue from where I left off.

Example 2:

Finding a hypoallergenic natural sunblock or sunscreenHere’s another example … recently I had to research hypoallergenic sun screen / sun block solutions because my family had developed an allergy to something in traditional sun screen products.  I recall spending over 8 hours, Googling over and over across dozens of different queries, pouring over pages and pages of results, sifting through the gunk to isolate useful nuggets.  Since I had to do this across multiple sessions, often I had to repeat my searches and sift through the same results, often irrelevant, over and over again.  Post-it notes, clippings in a Word document, patchy email notes sent to other family members about this — this was my toolset for collecting, sharing and collaborating.  I did find 2-3 products finally, but it wasn’t easy.  And I’m an above-average searcher myself!

Example 3:

Planning a reunion in central FloridaIn late 2009, my extended family decided to have a family reunion in Florida.  In that context, we had to search for travel options, accommodations for 16 people, attractions, food/eating choices and ideas and a whole lot more.  Of course, I Googled over and over and over across many days doggedly, used emails to collect information and share with other family members across the country, and eventually we did have a great reunion in the Orlando area.  But, Googling offered little support in accomplishing this whole task!

If you think these searches are outliers, think to your own experiences of researching to purchase a gadget, an appliance or any big ticket item.  Think about the time you started researching places for a vacation with family or friends.  Or when you had to find more about a disease or medical condition and treatment options for a dear one.  Or the time when you had to find a supplier for a product / service at work.  The list is quite large, of searches like these, where the search itself is a process, and not something that yields an answer with a single query and the desired result on page-1.  Whether these searches emerge from our need as a consumer, or as a student, or as a business professional, the problem is the same!  The instant gratification that seduced me and you into using Google, and has us addicted to it, doesn’t do a darned thing to help here.

I don’t know how to say it, except quite bluntly – Google isn’t designed for searches like these, at least not today! Neither are other mainstream search engines.

The irrelevant results, coming from the search result pages that have been hijacked for queries with a commercial intent, make it worse.  Check out Paul Kedrosky’s post: Dishwashers, and How Google Eats Its Own Tail, Alan Patrick’s post: On the increasing uselessness of Google and Jeff Atwood’s post: Trouble in the House of Google for more examples where Googling isn’t helping as it might have some time ago. The subject of declining relevance in search results is a separate topic that I’ll write more about later.

These searches are expensive in terms of time – your and my precious time lost in googling over and over.  And yet, each one of us goes back to Google every so often for a need like this, and go through the same time wasting process over and over again!

So, when you factor in these sorts of searches that you do, what is the real cost of your searches in all?

Seduced by the tools of instant gratification, I personally believe we have been enslaved into using Google (and same could be said for regular Bing or Yahoo or Ask or AOL users too) even when it is not the right tool for the job.  “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, the saying goes, and it seems that the vast majority of searchers are using the Google hammer all the time, even when it is clearly not the right tool for the job. The cost of doing so?  I don’t have concrete numbers to share yet, but I think it is safe to say that there’s a HUGE collective productivity loss from using the wrong tool for a searching job like this!

What is your opinion on this matter?

My startup, Zakta, is set to launch SearchTeam, the world’s first real-time collaborative search engine soon.  By combining tools to search, collaborate and curate into a single integrated solution, we hope to provide a useful search tool for finding information like this individually, or together with friends, family members, colleagues or other trusted people. I’ll share more information about this in the coming days and weeks.

Is Google domination stifling search engine innovation?

Google is the undisputed leader in the search engine market.

US Search Engines Marketshare, 6-month trend from StatOwlSource: StatOwl

As this trend chart shows, in the past few months, Google has lost a little bit of ground to Bing and Yahoo.  And that is after a mega spend on the Bing launch and the Yahoo-Microsoft deal.

For me, this is not the noteworthy observation in this chart.  It is that the “Other” group charted here is only 0.02% or lesser of marketshare / usage!

And this is particularly interesting when you consider that there has been a continuous stream of well-funded search engine companies that have come into the market over time.  Take the well funded and much-hyped Cuil or the recently launched Blekko.  Or the veteran meta search engine DogPile. Or the clustering search engine Clusty. Or niche search engines like the discussion search engine Omgili, or the people search engine Pipl, or the real-time search engine Topsy.  There are literally over one hundred such search engines in existence now, not to mention the many that have come and gone!

The combined effect of all the $s gone into these companies, their creativity, their innovations, as measured by their actual impact on the market is but a small, unnoticeable blip.

The dominance of Google, with Bing, Yahoo, AOL and Ask picking up the rear to complete the canvas of “mainstream search engines”, seems to leave no room whatsoever for innovations from outside to thrive!

One could argue that none of the hundreds of search engine companies in the past decade offered a compelling enough alternative to Google.  Clearly that is true at many levels.  The sheer coverage of the Web that Google provides, the high performance sub-second result pages, the continuous stream of small innovations (like Wonder Wheel, Query Autosuggestions, Google Instant etc.) continue to keep a high bar that not even the others in the “mainstream search engines” have been able to match and exceed consistently.

On the other hand, Google isn’t without flaws, holes and deficiencies.  As recent articles point out well, Google’s search results are manipulated every single minute.  What yielded superior results consistently back in 1999-2001 has consistently been compromised in the past 8-9 years, especially for queries with a commercial intent.  Relevance, the thing that Google was originally most famous for, is slipping away from Google, or so it seems at this juncture.  This, and other factors like, the growth of social media, social networking, real-time information, video and more, have made the search engine problem more complex.  In this complexity, and these gaps, search engine startups see opportunities, and investors continue to invest money.

But will any of these search engine startups and their innovations really become part of the mainstream in terms of user adoption?

It does seem like a tall order.  The graph above speaks volumes about the rather poor odds of a new search engine become part of the mainstream!   It is in this vein that I wonder if Google’s domination, followed by the four other “mainstream search engines”, stifles lasting search engine innovation from a broader market of search engine companies!  What do you think?

I have a vested interest in this matter.  My second startup, Zakta, is about to release a new search engine to market soon.  I’ll be writing more about this here in the coming days and weeks.

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