On Tuesday, Google announced something called Search, plus Your World (SPYW). It marked a startling transformation of the
company’s flagship product, Google Search, into an amplifier of social content. Google’s critics — as well as some folksgenerally well-intentioned towards Google — have complained that the social content it amplifies is primarily Google’s own product, Google+.
They have a point. With SPYW, the search experience deeply becomes intertwined with Google’s social networking product. You see it in the search box, where the Google+ identity becomes the way to identify a person whose name is in a query. You see it in the search results, where Google+ content is overwhelmingly displayed compared to other social material from Google’s competitors. You see it in a “People and Pages” list — suggestions for connections on Google+ — that appears in the same column as Google’s ads.
In short, they say there’s too much Plus and not enough of Our World, which has oodles of content on other social networks.
Let’s take a step back. Is it a good idea for Google to integrate social information into search? The answer, at least in concept, is yes. Google’s mission is to provide all the world’s information. Social information is a big part of that, and Google has been aware for quite some time that its failure to successfully handle the “people” side of its products has been its greatest failure. Google+ was part of a larger initiative to fill this gap. The other part was to make all of Google’s products more social. Including search.
Google+ was only the first part of Google’s social ambitions
Google CEO Larry Page prepped us for this recently by saying that Google+ was only the first part of Google’s social ambitions — the next step is to “light up” all of Google. As someone who watched the evolution of Google’s social strategy over a year before the release of Google+, I can affirm that this has always been the plan.
But when it came to search, there was a big question: would lots of social results will actually improve search for Google’s users? Do people want their searches full of information about the people they know? Google is convinced that the answer that, too, is yes. According to search quality guru Amit Singhal, it has carefully measured the responses of its users to its existing social search product (one much more modest that SPYW), and found that people respond favorably to search results tagged with connections to people they know. In other words, they click more often on social links, and are “happy” with the results. (Google knows they are happy because they don’t immediately return to the search box to try the same query again.)
The canonical example is that of Singhal’s dog, Chikoo. Previously, if Singhal had typed in the dog’s name into the search box, he’d get nothing but stuff about the tropical fruit by that name. Now, because he is fond of posting pictures of his canine on Google+, he can get doggie content. And since he shares those pictures with people in his family, when his wife does a search for Chikoo, she sees those images, too, and (says Singhal) is delighted to see the family dog in the results. (When I search for Chikoo, I see nothing about the Singhal family pet. As is appropriate.)
Now think about the circumstances that would lead to such a search in the first place. Singhal is going to Google search to look for information about his own dog, the way you or I would use a search engine to look for information about Jessica Biel or Mitt Romney. On first blush this seems odd, to be sure. But Google is always striving for more information in its indexes. It stretched the boundaries its results with its Universal Search product, which brought in media other than web pages, and got some flak for it. But it was the right thing to do, and Google figured out how to do it well. And now we demand images, video, books and other media in search.
Indeed, Google sees SPYW as a similar advance to Universal Search. With the fervor of a recent convert, it believes that social information is a corpus that must be included in search. One day we may marvel that when we searched we didn’t have access to all our social content. Fair enough.
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