Thursday, January 12, 2012

Taking Social Too Far – Or Are They?

Since I’m an active social networker and partner in a tiny social network myself, I like to stay abreast of what’s going on in the social media world.

But like Farhad Manjoo over at Slate, I’m convinced this social thing can be taken a bit too far.

Manjoo is ranting about something I haven’t experienced yet: Google’s new “social search” feature which, by default, includes links and posts and babblings from your friends on Google+ for every search you do.

Since I have but few friends on Google+, I’ve not noticed the social interference yet. Manjoo has, and finds it maddening. Here’s the gist of what he says in his post:

I re-ran some of my old queries in two ways—first with Google’s new social-heavy service turned on, and then with it off. (Yes, thankfully, there’s a button to deactivate the new feature, which is turned on by default.) Among other things, I searched for Emo Philips, “hot mess,” Pakistani biryani, Mark Duplass, Dualit classic white toaster, Harold Camping, flourless chocolate cake, pardon pepper, child proofing, Jerry Brown taxes, Kia Soul, and Hawaii big island hotel. Several of these queries returned links that were shared by my friends, but not once did Google return a fantastic link on the social page that it didn’t also return on the non-social page. In most cases, the results were identical; in the few instances in which the social page returned additional links, those links weren’t what I was looking for.
If social search adds to the net benefit of searching, I’m all for it. But, if as Manjoo discovers, it’s not adding to the conversation, why bother?

I suppose I look at it this way: If I want information and advice from my social networks, I’ll pose questions on Facebook or Twitter. If I want general information or information I know isn’t likely to be found in abundance among our social network, I’m going to Google it.

There is some valuable crossover, however, that Manjoo may be missing.

Take, for example, this morning’s crisis: Head lice. My wife found head lice on two of our three kids, including the one who slept in our bed last night. She immediately went to her social network, via phone, to find out from others what they’ve done to combat the problem. She sent me to the Internets to find out supplemental information. Some of it is conflicting. Most of it, I’m sure, is valuable. In this instance, going social and going Google is valuable, because we hear from the experts via Google and we hear from the folks in the trenches, via our social network.

I’m not saying I want to consult my social network with every Google question I might have, but there are times when such in-the-trenches knowledge is far more valuable than what can be found via Googling. For instance, any plumbing-related question we might have goes to the plumber across the street, not to Google. If I notice someone in my social network has a vehicle like ours, I’m more likely to go to them with questions – “have you ever experienced X with your car before – before I’m going to those impenetrable automobile care forums online.

(This would work with Google social search if they included Facebook and Twitter results, rather than limiting social results to Google+, and if I had all of my social contacts on Facebook, rather than in a hodgepodge of sources from Facebook to Twitter to going out on the porch and shouting someone’s name.)

So how could social search be made smarter? Google’s gone one way by allowing users to turn it off or on. But it’s in the algorithm, rather than in a simple on-off switch, that social search could be made more intelligent. Google could train its algorithms to recognize when questions being asked or searches being undertaken are of the nature for which social answers would be an augmentation, not a hindrance. Google seems perfectly capable of sorting such algorithmic problems out, rather than turning social search by default on, like the sponsored links and such that I rarely click on.

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