Google's new social search features are pushing it in uncomfortable directions
Google's new social search features may be about Google trying to stay relevant to a socially switched on web - but they risk making Google even less relevant by skewing what search users see, says silicon.com's Natasha Lomas
Search should not be a social network. Nor should it have an agenda. But changes pushed out by Google last week are driving in uncomfortable directions.
Google has rolled out a new feature called Search plus Your World, currently available for users of Google.com who are using English and signed in with a Google profile. The feature, which defaults on but can be toggled off via a switch at the top right of the screen, displays social search results based on a user's Google+ contacts and photos shared via Google's online photo-sharing service Picasa.
This new feature specifically does not promote search results from alternative social network services such as Facebook and Twitter, although content from these rival services can still appear among search results - but only if it's specifically relevant to what you're searching for. Google+ data appears regardless of whether you're seeking it.
The big, uncomfortable point here is that Google is treating its own social content differently from the social content of some of its rivals' services. Google appears to be promoting content from its own services simply because it can - rather than because it's the most relevant and therefore useful result for a user's search query.
For example, a search for the following Twitter username results in that Twitter user's profile being returned as the top result when using the standard version of Google:
Yet that result - clearly the most relevant for the data being sought - is bumped down to third place when using Search plus Your World:
And here's an example of Google promoting its own content over content from a rival social service - when running a search for the word "Twitter" with Google's Search plus Your World feature switched on the result is accompanied by a prominent promotion box (see below, right) that contains a series of Google+ users. Not exactly what you'd call relevant for a search for "Twitter"!
Relevance and search are joined at the hip - and with good reason. If a search engine turns up something you're not looking for, it's not going to be a piece of software you use for much longer. Yet this is a lesson Google seems to have forgotten in this drive to fend off apparent threats from the likes of Facebook and Twitter - services which have been more successful at the social web.
Relevance is a key theme here. Google's fear is of the traditional search business in which it was born and has thrived becoming undermined in a world where people find most of the stuff they're looking for online on their social networks, rather than on the open web using Google's search engine. It's afraid of becoming irrelevant in a world where the internet is increasingly pigeonholed into closed communities such as Facebook which don't allow their data to be crawled by Google's spiders.
Social has been Google's big hurdle in recent years. The one nut it's not managed to crack. Or as Marissa Mayer, formerly Google's head of search and now VP of geographic and local services, told it to the LeWeb audience at the end of 2010: "On the web there are four key platforms: search, video, social and mobile. Google has gotten three out of the four really right and we're working hard on the fourth one. "We're really committed to it - we will do a good job."
But who is Google trying to do a "good job" for? Itself? Or its users?
Search Plus your World seems to offer distinct benefits to Google, some benefits to users of Google+ and other Google services but a decidedly less useful, and even rather skewed, view of the internet for anyone who uses or simply wants to be aware of what's going on with rival services such as Twitter. The risk is that Google creates an echo chamber of itself - an effect author Eli Pariser has described as a filter bubble - shrinking the world the web user sees. And there's another risk too: by placing too much emphasis on people you're already plugged into, Google could also reduce the serendipity of search - stumbling upon people you don't know, discovering things you didn't expect.
Google says the lack of data from rival services in its Search plus Your World service is down to them opting out, rather than it shutting them out. Google's complaint about Facebook is that Facebook is keeping its data to itself - and closing off a bit of the internet in the process. On the Twitter front, Google used to have a deal with Twitter which incorporated real-time tweets into search results - but the deal expired last summer.
However, just because Google can't link to all of Facebook or Twitter's content doesn't mean it can't link to any of it. When the Twitter deal expired last year, a Google spokesman said: "While we will not have access to this special feed from Twitter, information on Twitter that