Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Competitors Build a Tool to Add Their Content Back Into Google Search

Google’s recent move to promote its own social network on its search engine wasn’t popular with its competitors. Now some engineers from Facebook and other social media sites are fighting back. They’re out to prove that Google can do better — using Google’s own algorithms.

Nerd fight!

Blake Ross

A weekend coding effort, led by Facebook rabble-rouser Blake Ross, gave birth to a browser bookmarklet called “don’t be evil” that rewrites Google’s personalized search results to include content from other social networks. (Ross’s official title is Director of Product, and he was previously a co-founder of Firefox.)

Ross said engineers from Twitter and Myspace also helped out with the bookmarklet, but he didn’t name them. The group launched a Web site today, at focusontheuser.org.

This gets slightly complicated, but you can install the bookmarklet yourself in Chrome, Firefox and Safari, or watch a video about how it works. After you do a normal Google search with personalized results turned on, you can click on the bookmarklet to get an updated version of the results that includes links to Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Myspace, Quora, Tumblr, Foursquare, CrunchBase, FriendFeed, Stack Overflow, GitHub and Google+.

I ran into a bunch of hiccups when I tried the bookmarklet out in Chrome, but it worked pretty smoothly in Firefox.

Here’s the background: A couple of weeks ago, when it launched “Search plus Your World” by default for English-language users, Google said that other social networks like Facebook and Twitter don’t let it crawl deeply enough to provide “secure and consistent access” to their users’ private content. So, SPYW could, for the most part, only include Google+ content.

That’s a bit of a ruse, because there’s lots of public content from social networks that Google already indexes. It’s not hard to find Twitter handles and LinkedIn profiles in Google search results. When SPYW launched, Twitter loudly called foul, and people at Facebook complained more quietly.

The thing is, SPYW doesn’t just give preference to private Google+ content in personalized search results. It also actively promotes Google+ profiles and other public content in various locations throughout the search page.

Google+ profiles — but not content from any other social network — now show up in a new “People and Pages” box that sometimes appears in place of ads on the right side of Google’s search-results page, as a type-ahead suggested query within the search box, and interspersed high up in search results for many brands.

Ross and his buddies used Google’s own organic search results and “Rich Snippets” tool to find the social network content that Google already indexes and ranks normally. The bookmarklet then integrates those diverse results into places where Google+ content is exclusively promoted.

This was an independent and unofficial effort, but Facebook is hardly disavowing it. In fact, a Facebook spokesman praised Ross’s voice-over talent (that’s him speaking in the video) in an email to AllThingsD.

While this feistiness makes for a fun story, the moral high ground might be a dangerous spot for Ross to claim.

Facebook notoriously hoards its members’ friend graphs and user emails, doling out access only to partners that it doesn’t see as direct competitors. Users who wish to remove and transport their data to another service are stifled at every turn.

Further, Facebook limits access to search engines, having required Microsoft’s Bing to sign a deal to access content that’s mostly public already. And it’s not like the company provides its own democratic search engine to compete with Google.

(Photo credit: Flickr user StampyTurtle)

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.


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When AllThingsD began, we told readers we were aiming to present a fusion of new-media timeliness and energy with old-media standards for quality and ethics. And we hope you agree that we’ve done that.

— Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, in their farewell D post