Google Elevates Social From the Search Results Ghetto (But Only When Deemed Worthy)
With all the bated breath over Google’s efforts to compete in social, anything the company releases is going to be carefully scrutinized. (Take that as fair warning: NetworkEffect is about to spend 500 words on a minor product launch.)
What Google is doing today is making some careful tweaks to weave social signals into search: Most notably, bringing social search results up from the bottom of the page and parsing links shared by friends.
Google has tried to bring in new blood to help it “get social,” most prominently hiring the PayPal and Slide founder Max Levchin by acquiring Slide. Today’s social search launch was put together by another serial entrepreneur who came into the company through an acquisition: Mike Cassidy. His last company, an online travel guide called Ruba, was sold to Google last May.
Cassidy was a significant get for Google, though he’s stayed under the radar till now. Prior to Ruba, Cassidy had founded and sold three previous companies: Xfire, Direct Hit and Stylus Innovation.
While his title at Google–product management director for search–doesn’t have the word “social” in it, Cassidy noted in a phone interview on Wednesday that Ruba was a social company; it was specifically focused on recommendations by friends. In fact, he said, an early name for Ruba, which was backed by Benchmark Capital and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, was “Friendstips.”
Back to Thursday’s launch: Google already has a “social search” product that turns up for a minority of queries in the No. 9 and 10 spots at the bottom of its results page for logged-in users who have connected their Google accounts to social services like Twitter.
Now those results will show up scattered throughout regular results. But that’s only for users who are logged in, and only when a social result is deemed relevant.
The other big change is Google will also now give higher ranking to URLs that are shared as links by friends on public sites like Twitter and Quora. Google will try to determine on a per-user and per-tweet basis if a link is relevant to a certain searcher based on which users shared it.
So, for instance, if an article was shared by a person you are friends with on multiple services, Google will think it’s probably more important to you. Or if a video has been shared by a lot of people, including your friends, there’s a good chance it will turn up high in your results on that topic.
Lastly, Google is tidying up some stuff so users can link social services to their Google accounts without displaying them for all to see on their public Google profiles.
Google’s search folks are not necessarily in alignment about the importance of social. Cassidy said Wednesday, “Recommendations from friends are some of the most powerful recommendations in the world. We’re trying to turbopower that. Google’s mission is organizing the world’s information, and this is an extension of that.”
But one of Google’s search scientists was recently quoted pooh-poohing the potential for social to change search. “Social is just one signal. It’s a tiny signal,” Amit Singhal told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison from Search Engine Land about what social signals Bing and Google used as of December. Since then, Bing has upped its special integration with Facebook to include pages “liked” by searchers’ friends.