MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Google: Searching Gets Social | February 21, 2011

In October of 2009, Google announced the arrival of Social Search — a newfangled way to find your web-savvy friends and family members through online browsing. The idea was that Google, which has access to lengthy lists of a given user’s contacts through his or her Gmail account and Google profile, would find the relevant blog posts, photographs and videos posted by those social contacts when the user engaged in a typical Google search. On an opt-in basis, the findings would be displayed in a special section of the Google search results page, as seen below.
Now, however, Google has decided to incorporate these social listings into the regular mix of search resuilts, meaning that web browsing will be personalized for each and every Google user based on his or her Twitter account and address book (Facebook is still kept private from Google’s eyes). So instead of retrieving the thoughts of anonymous writers from unknown sites, Google users will be able to access the recommendations and musings of their best friends on topics of their choice; this, according to Google, is an advantage in online searching because it works against the search-engine optimization tactics that countless companies employ to endow their own sites with artificial popularity. (Google Chrome has a similarly-minded feature: users can click a “Block” button to ban any given site from their future search results, another attempt to undercut search-engine optimizers from overriding more pertinent search results.)

Still, the web is abuzz wondering whether Social Search is indeed an innovation, and not merely an annoyance. The first question is of Social Search’s true impact: without access to Facebook, the juggernaut of social networks, Google is banking on Twitter, Flickr and Quora to dominate the future of social info exchange. Perhaps this is a solid strategy — Twitter is clearly the most popular outlet for online advice sharing — but it also might be redundant, as the most voracious Twitter users have likely exhausted their friends’ tips and corresponding links before even approaching a traditional Google search to track down information. Many industry insiders point to Google’s frustration that Microsoft Bing — its foremost competitor — is granted exclusive access to Facebook’s vault of personal data, which it uses in its own version of the social search. Google’s response could merely be a less powerful (and less up-to-date) retort.

Meanwhile, in this apparent struggle between two search engine giants, the ultimate loser may be the field of search engine optimization (SEO), the Web 2.0 industry born of the desire to place high on results pages — an industry worth some $25 million per year. With social data fueling search results, the job of an SEO innovator becomes harder, and the code harder to crack. SearchEngineWatch.com, an online outlet for all things related to web browsing, suggests that, as a result of initiatives like Social Search, effective SEO must involve a company’s active involvement in various social networks — which can mean courting as many followers, fans and subscribers as possible. (“As if you hadn’t heard about it enough,” says the site, “you need to have your Twitter account actively posting updates. Use keywords just like on your site, and boost your subscribers as much as possible.”) This process inevitably leads to the same gray area of the internet where, due to the ambiguous nature of Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds, corporations try to act online as friends — and whether consumers actually want these types of relationships with their product and service providers is, as always, entirely in question.

In the meantime, Social Search is yours to try. See the video below for a basic explanation of how the feature works, and gauge for yourself whether you want your friends intermixing with your future Google findings.


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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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