Social search was in the news this past week when Google and Bing announced that they would be getting access to the Twitter fire hose. A flurry of subsequent posts speculated on what this "social search" would entail, and some expressed concerns over privacy and spam.
But social search is not something to be afraid of. It's really just an extension of behaviors that we're used to in the real world, brought online, thanks to the advent of real-time social computing.
This guest post was written by Brynn Evans.
First, people have sought help from others for search problems and information-seeking tasks for a long time. Prior to the Internet, this was our primary way of getting information. We either asked a librarian to help us find something or, prior to that, we spoke to each other to spread information and seek help. We can reasonably treat this current trend in social search as a return to that familiar state.
Secondly, social search is no scarier than the Web itself. Social search will not make you easier to find. If you're the type of person whose social network data appears in search results, then you're already incredibly findable on the Web. Your tweets may reach more people than you want, but this also means that your ideas will be exposed to a wider audience, extending your reach and influence and presumably improving your brand. As before, if your tweets are currently open to the public, you're already reaching more people than you know.
The very real issue of relevance, though, comes up when dealing with social search. Noise, false information and spam could dilute a set of search results and distract users from their quest. But spam is context-sensitive. Well-targeted ads aren't regarded as spam; in fact, many people don't even know the difference between Google ads and the main set of results. Same with search. A Twitter post linking to an article on diet supplements may be perfectly relevant in a query on "dieting tips and tricks" on Bing. In any case, finding spammers on Twitter should be relatively easy judging by the follower-following ratio or similarity of tweets.
Social search is also not a fad. It's an improvement on limited algorithms that only index static pages. Chris Messina and Jyri Engeström remind us that we're in a transitional state from a Web of documents (in which algorithms were sufficient for surfacing relevant data) to a Web of people (in which PageRank no longer captures what's happening right now or happening among your group of friends). Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reiterated this at the Web 2.0 Summit, saying that there is a "shift going on from an information economy to a social economy."
Social search is one mechanism for leveraging the value in this shift.
So, as you get used to how companies like Google and Bing implement social search, think about how your community of Facebook friends, distant acquaintances in your Google contacts, nearby friends from location-based services and publicly bookmarked items might help you search better.
Guest author: Brynn Evans is a PhD student in Cognitive Science at UC San Diego who uses digital anthropology to study and better understand social search.