Google believes social networks give their algorithms more insight into exactly what people mean when they search for something, but at what cost?
The city I live in, Buffalo, NY, has an annual outdoor summer concert series. One humid night in 2001, more than 45,000 people, or more than half the capacity of the city's football stadium, packed into a downtown square to hear Pat Benatar kick out some power ballads. Benatar was great, but the opening act for the show was "Glo," a trio of girl-pop singers and dancers, the leader of which just happened to be Pat Benatar's daughter.
I'll leave it to your imagination as to exactly how a crowd of mostly middle-aged adults, holding $6 Labatt Blue cups above their heads in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, on one of the hottest nights of the summer, appreciated having to wait out three saccharine musical numbers before they could hear the rock hero of their youth. But that dissonance, that annoyance at having to wait as someone punched above their weight in a set-up match because of their relation to the main event - that, right there, is the best analogy I can summon up for how "Google Search, Plus Your World" feels at the moment.
It is, in other words, like taking a product that is still developing, one that is still figuring out what it's good at and what it is best used for, and then making it something everybody searching on Google.com sees as an important part of their results. Google, the company built on relevance, is making a blanket statement about the relevance of one of their own products, less than a year after its launch. John Gruber at Daring Fireball likens the move to the "portal" strategies of the 1990s. Google's motivations are a bit more complicated than a strict desire for social attention, however.
On last week's This Week in Google show, Matt Cutts, of Google's Search Quality team, used the term "once bitten, twice shy" more than once to describe Google's relationship with outside social networks.
For example, Twitter once provided real-time results to accompany Google results, with a logged-in Twitter user's contacts given priority, but Twitter pulled out from a renewal. As Cutts described it, engineers at Google worked very long hours over the Independence Day holiday weekend to safely turn off Google's Twitter integration. Meanwhile, rival search engine Bing, in which owner Microsoft continues to invest heavily, lined up deals with both Twitter and Facebook.
It's not just that Google wants to show people searching through its still unmatched page indexes and algorithms what's being said in the social network sphere about their search terms, though that's likely something we'll all come to expect in the future. For Google, seeing what people search for, then ask about, then click on within their social networks, gives their algorithms more insight into exactly what people mean when they search for something, and where some of the best and most timely results come from. Social networks generate a different set of "signals" than web pages. Having those signals available gives Google a competitive edge in figuring out what users want from them.
Ultimately, people will vote with their address bars, bookmarks, and home pages. The friction in switching to an alternative and competent search engine, such as Bing or Duck Duck Go, is almost non-existent - click or type in the address, and now you're searching there. As previously noted, businesses and brands might consider a Google+ presence a necessity, but that penalty is lessened as more users make their own decisions about seeing Google+ in their search results.
Meanwhile, engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace (yes, MySpace) recently released a bookmarklet and browser extension that strips Google results of their Google+ peripherals, and it's picked up an unofficial moniker: the "Don't Be Evil Bookmarklet." It's a knock at Google's informal corporate motto.
It's an interesting thing, to see a crowd start to consider the vitality of a brand they know so well. It's getting hot out there, on the web.