Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

If Only Search and Social Could Just Get Along

Yesterday, Google and Twitter aired some dirty laundry that had been stagnating after a deal to include tweets in Google search died this past summer. It all came to a head after Google started featuring private social networking content in search — but only content from its own Google+ and Picasa.

Twitter lead the charge of critics, saying this was an egregious move for the search company whose mission is to “organize the world’s information.” Meanwhile, Google said that the restrictions Twitter puts around its data make it impossible to search properly.

But this problem of indexing, archiving, sorting and searching the mountains of data across online social networks is bigger than that one spat.

When it comes to social search products, the default seems to be crippled and half-baked. Especially for companies that make their own social networks.

Search may not be one of the core activities on social networks today, but that’s probably in part because the existing tools — both for searching within a particular social network and across multiple social networks — are so lame.

There are some relatively good reasons why social search is hard, but none of them seem insurmountable:

  • Competing social networks won’t give each other access to their social graphs and data feeds.
  • Privacy settings: Search obviously needs to be respectful to only expose content that people have permission to see. That’s a hard calculation to make on the fly. Plus, since social networking content is so personal, it’s important to respect the settings of content that’s been deleted or made private.
  • Ingesting and analyzing tons of data in real time is also hard.
  • Ranking content that social network users post can be different than ranking Web pages. A lot of the time, those posts may only be interesting to a small set of people, but every once in a while they are hugely important.

The business deals and access to data are the biggies. Before this latest Goog-Twit war, Google and Facebook tussled over importing friend lists. Facebook is particularly unfriendly to most search engines; it clamps down tightly on access even to its users’ public content.

As for the technical challenges: It’s 2012, people, figure it out! The point is delivering relevant content to users, which should be a core expertise for all of you.

“Google plus Your World” is not the first lame social search product. (And to be fair, the product itself doesn’t seem that lame; it’s more the lack of other networks’ data.)

For instance, Facebook’s feature for searching user posts is so buried within its interface that it almost might as well not exist. (Type a search term into the top bar on Facebook, then move your cursor down to the bottom of all the results, and click to see more. Then, on that next page, scroll past everything again to see “Posts by Friends.”)

And Twitter doesn’t even give users access to their own archive of tweets!

Google+ is actually the only social network with reasonable internal search — it gives options to search posts from everyone, only people in a user’s Circles, or only personal content.

Bing has perhaps the broadest approach of any major player, because it has deals with both Facebook and Twitter — and because Microsoft doesn’t really do social.

Bing does feature Facebook content and usernames in search, but mostly pages that a user’s friends have publicly liked. That’s only scratching the surface of what people do on Facebook.

And while Bing may have re-upped the deal that Google lacks for Twitter’s real-time “Firehose” of tweets, it’s not doing much with all that data. Tweets seem to be relegated to a separate page outside Bing’s main search results.

There are plenty of start-ups getting this kind of stuff done. Topsy tackles both Twitter and Google+ search. Greplin indexes users’ personal content across all of their Web services. Klout analyzes social graphs on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and others, to determine which users are interesting and relevant. Katango (which Google bought) and Jildy identify clusters within friend networks to understand different contexts.

It seems about time for the big guys to get their acts together.

(Image courtesy of Flickr user recursion_see_recursion)


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work