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Noah Mallin Headshot

Google Versus Google -- Will Social Search Tear the Company Apart?

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Google announced with great fanfare that they were
incorporating results from social media sites like Twitter into their search
pages last week. So did their search rival, Bing. The difference in how each
company is doing this says a lot about the struggle going on within
Google to define what the company will be in the future.

You must
have a Google profile to see what they are calling “Social Search” results.
Even then, the results you see are based only on your existing social networks (you
have to be a Twitter member and the search results are only culled from people
you follow) rather than presenting all relevant results.

In doing so, Google limits the user’s information and
perpetuates an already existing walled garden, something that users could already have done
by going to Twitter’s search tool.

My first thought upon seeing this was “Crap, now I have to
fill out yet another social profile?” And, I work in social media! This is a
little something we call profile fatigue.

Google may have the idea that limiting your Social Search results to your existing network
helps them to display the results that are most relevant to you, but
I'm not sure that’s the only reason they want you to fill out a Google
profile.

You have to fill out a Google profile because long-term
Google wants that to be the last profile you’ll have to fill out (a
game
Facebook is also playing with their acquisition of FriendFeed, a
service that pulls in activity from a variety of social networks).
Google will then
aggregate all of your other profile activity and eventually may allow
you to
interact with Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn without ever leaving the
comfort
of your Google environment online.

This approach is antithetical to
the very core of what Google’s stated mission has always been: “…to organize
the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Enter the new Google, the company that offers Google Docs, a
web-based application for creating business documents, and Chrome, a web-based
browser, and Android, a mobile operating system. The idea behind all of this is
to keep users within the Google universe using Google tools. It’s an inherently
closed view of the Internet clearly at odds with the opposing, open view that
champions the free flow and access of information and the ability to use Google
to get to new places and things.

Now, Google seems to say, information has to penetrate
Google’s shell rather than Google’s shell expanding to encompass more
information. An argument can be made that this is simply an extension of what
Google and others have been doing in search by serving up results that are
increasingly informed by factors like an individual user’s location and previous
search history.

The irony is that Google may have shot themselves in the
foot as Bing seems poised to integrate Twitter (and down the road, other social
properties) in a much more open, accessible and visible way. You can try the Beta version here
(full disclosure: Bing is owned by Microsoft, a client of my employer Reprise
Media).

To see what the
future might look like, I’ve been pointing folks to a search engine called Kosmix which has its faults but
is still the best integration of search material on a single results page I’ve
seen.

What Bing and Kosmix both do is to serve up Twitter results based on your search
query rather than your existing network as Google does. This makes new content discoverable and helps to promote the free flow of information -- key attributes of successful search engines. 

So far, Bing seems much closer to the future while Google is
still grappling with who they are as a company.

(UPDATE: It appears that Google is now indeed pulling from Twitter for Social Search results without requiring a user's Google account to be linked to a Twitter profile. Google does seem to be using a variety of factors to surface results that are going to be relevant, and users who do link their Twitter profiles to their Google login appear to be likely to see results based on their existing friends on the first page of results. 

In light of this I think it's fair to say that Google is moving towards an interesting model that does resturn more information rather than less, using as much about the user's existing social connections as the algorithm can access to organize results in a meaningful way.

This is very different from the functonality of Twitter search and though it does still require a login to access, cannot really be described as a "walled garden" model as I had initially described it.

It's not inconcievable that this could lead to Google integrating more social search results into searches done without logging into Google at all, while continuing to serve up results to logged-in users that are highly informed by their existing social profiles.)