Why Google’s Social Search Is Too Much, Too Soon
Google’s recent change to its search engine is losing in the public opinion arena.
Meanwhile, about 2,000 Mashable readers have answered the poll question, “Would you prefer that Google, etc. go back to their old ‘natural’ search methods or do you find that inclusion of this data makes it easier to find what you’re looking for?” Sixty-three percent of them said they don’t want social search results.
But is the idea behind “Search, plus Your World” terrible? We’re not so sure.
Social connections are a potentially great way to determine relevance. That’s why Google, Bing, Blekko and DuckDuckGo have been incorporating social data into their results long before Search plus Your World arrived on the scene. And it’s hard to argue that some facets of Google’s new search feature aren’t useful. When you search for a name, for instance, the new feature returns results for the “Ben Smith” you are connected to rather than for hundreds of other men who share his name. Adding someone to a social network directly from a search results page? That saves me a step. And there are some searches for which social context is important.
What I dislike about Search plus Your World isn’t that Google has more deeply integrated social data on its search results pages. It’s that the search engine has gone overboard with Google+ in a way that makes me feel like I’m being force-fed a new social network. It’s too much, too soon.
The majority of Google’s revenue depends on people using its search engine, and most searchers choose to use Google over other search engines for one reason: it’s really good at returning relevant results. We don’t Google for the doodles, and we don’t Google for the Google+.
Some of the ways that Google has integrated Google+ into its search engine interfere with its users’ primary objective of finding a specific piece of information.
Social search results, for instance, often push more relevant non-Google+ results almost halfway down the page. When I search “Justin Bieber,” I see his official page, images from my network, three comments from my Google+ circles, and only then do I get to his Twitter page. He has 16 million followers on Twitter and posts frequently. He doesn’t have a Google+ page that I can find, so I don’t see any of his social properties without taking time to scroll down the page to the eighth result.
When I Google myself, I get a full-page snippet of my own Google+ profile, complete with a button to update it.
I don’t have a problem with Google showing me what friends have said about a topic on its network or asking me if I want to update my Google+ profile. But I do have a problem with those results being so prominent that they make it harder for me to find the other information I’m looking for. If I want to know that much about what my friends are saying about a topic on Google+ that bad, I’ll search directly from my Google+ account. The same would go for comments made in my Twitter and Facebook networks, if they were included in Google’s social search results.
It’s true that people who don’t want social results can simply hit a toggle switch to return to Google as they knew it last week (in my example above, this would make Justin Bieber’s Twitter page the fifth result), but it doesn’t make sense to me why social results can’t be incorporated less intrusively.
By some estimates, Google+ is on track to reach 400 million users by the end of 2012. That’s twice as many as Twitter. Google hasn’t released user numbers for Google+, but analyst Paul Allen recently estimated that the site has about 62 million users worldwide. This means that no matter their potential, at this point in time, Google+ profiles are likely not the most relevant social search results.
Including Google+ pages at the top of results, despite the network’s relatively low adoption levels, makes it feel like Google is using its search engine to amp up activity on its social network. But Google users have already made it clear they don’t like it when Google uses one service to turn them on to another. When Gmail-based Google Buzz launched in 2010, users complained so much about features that automatically added frequent contacts to the social network, and linked Google Reader and Picasa web albums, that Google changed these features four days after launch.
Google could have launched an option for Google+ users to attach their accounts to Search rather than automatically connecting the products. It also could have waited until Google+ is more relevant before increasing the integration of its pages — in-rank with their actual relevancy — in search results.
What I Want “Search, plus Your World” to Be
I’m not in charge of fixing social search for Google. But if I were, here’s what I would change:
- Suggest social profiles from other sites:Right now, Google only features Google+ pages in the people recommendations it has added to the right-hand column of results. But these aren’t necessarily the most relevant social profiles, and they leave out anybody who doesn’t have an active Google+ account.
Facebook doesn’t let Google crawl its private pages and Twitter adds “nofollow” tags to links that might help search engines figure out how its users are related to each other. But, as Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan points out, Google’s search engine does pull up Facebook and Twitter profiles in its search results. It should include those in its relevant people suggestions as well.
- Get out of the way: I use Google search to find specific information. It’s interesting to see how my social network has commented on a relevant topic, but that doesn’t have to interfere with my search for that information. Google could put it next to results instead of in them, as it has with its new people recommendations. It could also put them in a separate search tab, the way it does with “news” and “images.”