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?

Beyond spam: Big Problems with Search

The current discussion around declining search quality on Google goes to the main bread and butter issue in organic search: How good are the search results in the first page?  And in this context, the discussion is dominated by the topics of search spam and content farms and gaming of the Google algorithm. That makes sense!

In my opinion, there are a lot of unaddressed “big problems” in search beyond fixing the spam issue.  I’m citing just a few of these here.

The content explosion: There is a growing diversity of content types, explosive growth of online content, and multi lingual content, all of which contribute to the complexity of what the current and next generation search engine needs to handle. No single search engine really is able to cover the complete set of information on the Web today, and this will remain a big challenge for search engines into the future.

Hidden content sources: Part of the content explosion continues to be the proliferation of specialized content sources and databases, content from within which we can’t readily discover from mainstream search engines. This phenomenon is called the Invisible Web or the Deep Web, first written about in the late ’90s (my previous startup Intelliseek, delivered the first search engine for the Invisible Web in 1999), and continues to remain a big open issue. Attention on it has lessened only because of the sheer noise around other memes like social search, real-time search and so forth in the past few years.

Understanding user intent: Then there are age-old issues that haven’t been addressed around understanding user intent.  Much of the quality of search results has to do with not knowing what the heck the searcher really needs.  We are still feeding keywords into a single search box and expecting the magic to happen on the part of the search engine to give us what we need.  Not finding our answers, more of us are doing longer queries, hoping that will give us the answers we need. i.e. We are compensating as users for something that search engines fundamentally do not understand today: our search intent.

Understanding the content: 16+ years since the first Web search engine, we are still processing textual information with little understanding of the semantics involved. Search engines do not understand the meaning of the content that they index. This is another contributing factor that limits the quality of results delivered by a search engine to users. For long, there’s been a buzz about the semantic Web, which is supposed to usher in richer search and information experiences starting from more meaningful data and sophisticated software that can make inferences from the data in ways that is not possible today. Hailed as “Web 3.0″, it is seen as the next phase in the evolution of the Web, and that is a realm of new problems and opportunities for search engines.

Handling User input: For the most part, search interfaces have continued to use the age old search box for typing keywords as input. While promising work has been done with accepting natural language questions as input, nothing commercially viable has really turned up that works in Web scale. Without solving this problem first, there is no hope of being able to speak to a search engine to have it bring back what you are looking for.

Presenting search results: The 10 results per page read-only SERP interface that first came about in the mid 90’s is what we are essentially stuck with even today (granted that there have been recent touches like page previews / summaries added to it, and showing videos / images etc. along with links to pages / sites).  A retrospective look at this 2007 interview with usability expert Jakob Nielsen which looks into possible changes in search result interfaces by 2010 is very revealing about the relatively slow pace of change with the SERP interface.  Others have attempted purely visual searches, and still others have tried to categorize / cluster search results. Still, what the mainstream search engines offer in terms of a interface for search results consumption is not noticeably innovative.

Personalizing: For the most part, search results are a one-size-fits-all thing.  Everyone gets the same results regardless of your interests and your connections.  Some attempts have been made to personalize search results both based on some model of individual interests and on the likes / recommendations of their social group, but that is a really challenging problem to solve well.  At Zakta, our Zakta.com service made the SERP read-write, and personalizable. Other services have tried to bypass the search engine itself with Q&A services that flow through a user’s social network.

Leveraging social connections and recommendations: First generation attempts have been made to have search results be influenced by the recommendations of others in a person’s social circle. Some speculate that Facebook might be sitting on so much recommendation data that they might have a potent alternative to Google in the search arena.  Regardless, this remains an unsolved search problem today.

Facilitating collaboration in search: Web searching has been a lonely activity since its inception. Combined with the limiting read-only SERP interface, searchers have never really been able to leverage the work, findings or knowledge of others (including those that they deeply trust) in the search process.  In the post Web 2.0 world we are in, this remains an noticeable gap in search. One area of opportunity is for search engines to let people search together to find what they need.

Specialized searches in verticals and niches: For a while in the early and mid 2000’s, the buzz was all about vertical search engines and somehow that meme just faded away. The core reasons for the attractiveness of vertical / specialized search engines remain. Shopping, Travel, and plenty of other verticals represent areas which could benefit from continued development of specialized search solutions that go beyond the mainstream search engine experience.

These are but a few examples of the many open “big problems” with Search.  Seeing this, we cannot but acknowledge that we are still in our infancy in meeting the search needs of an increasingly online, connected and mobile populace.

At Zakta, my startup, we are working on solutions for some aspects of these big search problems.  We are combining semantics, curation, and collaboration technologies with traditional Web searching to deliver a new search engine called SearchTeam.  Perfect for collaborative search, or as a research tool for personal or collaborative curation of web content, we hope that SearchTeam will become a very useful part of people’s search toolset.  At this time, SearchTeam is in private beta.

What do you think are open problems, big or small, with search engines?

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