Finding good information on the web can be pretty frustrating.
Google, of course, has made this a lot easier but even then you regularly find that searches can go completely wonky.
Wonkiness aside, for the vast majority us Google is our first search.
With Google relevance is determined by a machine, directed by a long and complicated algorithm that takes into account all sorts of things like website meta-data, back-links, geographic location and so on. While the search results are usually pretty good it is clear that there is no conscious being on the other end sorting the nonsense from the relevant. It would be inconceivable that there ever would be anyone on the other end of a Google search given the fact that over a million searches are executed a day on the platform.
Microsoft and their Google-alternative, Bing are trying to capitalize on this, but quite frankly Bing just isn't that much different - it's still using a machine, directed by a complicated algorithm to find what we're looking for online. Bing does have some pretty funny ad campaigns, but it's going to take more than howling monkey people to unseat Google from its search dominance.
So what's a better source of online information than these search machines? Who do we trust? Our friends of course, but looking to them to somehow offer up the best information on any given topic has its own set of challenges.
For instance, not all of our friends are online and those who are online and offering thoughts, opinions, recommendations and information are not all doing it in the same place. Some might be on Twitter, others on their own blog, instant messaging, forums or whatever else. And last time we checked, our collective group of friends are definitely not experts in everything we seek information on.
Information may be a little more scarce and hard to gather from our online friends, but at least the information we do receive from our friends has a certain level of built-in accountability.
So is this idea of social search the way to go when it comes to finding the best information on a given subject? Can we trust "the crowd" more than the machine?
We did a bit of poking around on the state of social search as it stands today.
The test case for our experiment was to find the best Lasik clinic in Vancouver, Canada.
First up, the machine.
Googling: "lasik clinic vancouver", not surprisingly, spits out a list of Lasik eye clinics in Vancouver. Helpful, for sure, but the decision by Google as to which clinic is listed first does not necessarily translate into it being the best Lasik clinic in Vancouver.
We used a great tool called SEO Quake, to provide some insight into why Google chose the sites it did. Turns out that the top results are the Lasik clinics websites that have most links.
The 'Google assumption' is that the most relevant sites are those most linked to and therefore the most talked about. Links into a site kind of work like votes for Google. The Google machine, however, has a very limited ability to judge the nature of these votes. Why are people talking about these clinics more than others? Are they impressed or are they ticked? Are the voters employed by these companies and put up to it? We simply can't tell by Google results alone.
Next we tried Aardvark, an online service calling itself a "social search service." to get an opinion from our online network of friends. Aardvark attempts to get an answer to your question from a person(s) in your network who has 'interests' in the topic. In our case, Aardvark failed to find such an person. But even if Aardvark had succeeded, why would we trust that person? Exactly what is the person's 'interest' in the topic ?
Next, Tim seeded the question on Facebook and received a reply from a friend who had Lasik surgery done and was very happy with the results and service she received. While he highly values her input, at the same time it is only a single opinion. If there was only a way to tap all your friends' collective thoughts on a given subject.
There will always be a place for machine-based searches, unless of course your friends can answer questions like: "What is the significance of black body radition in the field of Quantum Mechanics. But an effective automated system that can gather up all your friends opinions, thoughts and recommendations and index them in a way that can answer your questions, would be a very powerful threat to Google.
Just how much of threat comes down to the fundamental question of whether you trust your friends more than the machine when it comes to finding the best information online.
If enough people trust friends more than the machine, then Facebook is probably the online platform best positioned to develop such a robust social search service, given that it has the critical mass, the connectivity within it's own platform, as well as across other platforms via Facebook Connect.
Easier said than done, but if you're looking for the real competition when it comes to multi-billion dollar online search market (and you trust your friends), then forget the company building the better machine and look out for the genius who figures out to embrace the collective wisdom of the crowd.