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?

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