by Hari Srinivasan
Circa 2000, a keyword typed into a search engine returned results that were a product of character-match algorithms. The user was left sorting through a dizzying array of links, whether relevant, inappropriate or nonsensical. It was a far cry from the social experience that is becoming the search of 2012 – where the worlds of Social and Search are merging! This is a natural transition in a world heavily connected by social networks and influenced by social media. The basic premise is that users are also interested in the opinions of real people, in addition to mere string-matches. “Social + Search” potentially impacts both users as well as companies seeking to optimize advertisement dollars in the online space.
Two key players – Bing and Google - are head to head in a fierce competition for this market space. Google has been reported as having 65% market share vs. Bing’s 15% (ComScore , November 2011.) This year, both companies have rolled out aggressive changes to their search engines.
Bing attempts to leverage trusted individuals by integrating recommendations from Facebook and Foursquare. Bing’s search results are displayed in a three-column format. The left column gives the pure algorithm matches. A thumbs-up icon under the links reflects ‘Likes’ by Facebook friends. These likes, however, don’t influence page rankings. Snapshot (middle column) displays information such as maps, images, reviews, ratings and the ability to make reservations or book flights. Bing’s right-hand column, titled “People Who Might Know,” best reflects its integration of social and search. It lists related posts of Facebook friends as well as those of companies that offer the searched service or product via Facebook. It also features an “Ask Friends” field to post queries and track recommendations to and from Facebook friends.
Relevant recommendations from Foursquare have been incorporated just this month. Foursquare has some 20 million users and over 3 million daily check-ins. Foursquare recommendations on Bing are based on venue and location ratings. Bing is also working with Open Table and FanSnap to make online reservations in Snapshot even faster.
Google provides information that others have found useful plus the collective knowledge available on the web. Google’s Knowledge Graph currently has information on some 500 million people, places and things and indexes 3.5 billion defining attributes and connections. For its Knowledge Graph, Google makes use of its own crawls and freely available resources like Wikipedia to provide additional useful content for users’ searches. Google search has also incorporated Google+ content to further personalize search results, called “Search Plus Your World.” Related posts from a user’s Google+ circles and Google blogs will show up in the search results.
Google’s search results are displayed in a 2-column format. The left column displays the algorithmic results. The right column reflects the Knowledge Graph and gives a summary of information relevant to your search, like biographical data or tour dates. It also gives a list of related topics and topic summaries to help you further refine your search.
Like Bing, Google recently added a +1 icon under its search results, reflecting the opinions of those in a user’s Google+ circles. However, the +1 results affect page rankings in a Google search, while Facebook “Likes” do not affect page rankings in a Bing search. This could well drive companies to use Google+ as an advertising venue to boost their page rankings on a Google search.
While Bing’s engine seems to be relying heavily on Foursquare and Facebook’s social graph, Google search seems to be more algorithm heavy, with searches attempting to understand natural complex language processing. For the user, the ideal search engine of choice is almost defined by the query he has. If it were for a college research paper, Google search may better serve the purpose, given the reach of its Knowledge Graph. The Knowledge Graph results allow disambiguation of results, and the query can be further narrowed. But if searching for restaurants, hotels or movies, which are subjective social experiences, Bing will return better results, as it better reflects opinions of friends from heavily used social networks like Facebook. While Bing could become the search engine of choice for most heavy Facebook users, Google is clearly limited by being restricted to social content from the less active Google+. From a user perspective, consumers would be better served if social data were openly accessible irrespective of the search engine used, i.e. Google could use Facebook data and Bing could use Google+ data.
The drive towards merging “Social + Search” for companies means that ads would be served to niche market users, and that translates to more clicks and optimal ad dollars. In addition, the influence of social in search could well play a key role in influencing consumer choice, trends and opinions. The question of ‘relevance’ itself needs to be refined and defined at a societal level. Would conflicting points of view be screened out, for instance, as not being relevant based on your social history? Where would the gatekeeping begin and end? Such questions will have to be hashed out as the concept evolves.
The merging of Search and Social promises to be an exciting development in the online world. Search has become more humanized, moving from the realm of mere programming to social opinion. It will be interesting to see what updates each company pushes out in the future of this race.
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