Search and social: A match made in heaven?

Search and social: A match made in heaven?

29th November 2010

Its not very often that search marketing makes the likes of the BBC news, however it was interesting to see the BBC website run a story this week stating the future of search is social.

The search engine landscape is such an interesting environment at this present moment in time for a number of reasons – for example:

  • New players in the market – We have seen the likes of Blekko launch to the public, as well as seen the continuing decline of perenial trier
  • Changes to the search results pages themselves – such as Local results on Google or Google Instant
  • Increasing influence of personalisation
  • Increasing integration of social networks within the search results, i.e Facebook/Bing and Twitter/Google RTS

As such this has led to a hugely different landscape for search marketeers of which the vast majority of readers of this blog are. The continuing evolution of the engines not only affects marketeers, one can’t help thinking traditional users of the search engines have had a lot to take in over the course of the last 12 months – without the benefit of industry knowledge.

During this time Google has continued to refine and develop their traditional algorithm – and many people in the industry have already voiced some thoughts on the current landscape – particularly in some highly competitive sectors such as car insurance and the like.

Some analysis of fluctuations would certainly suggest a significant shift towards taking into account social factors when determining relevancy within the search engines.  To this effect many of the search engines have already confirmed that they are utilising these pointers already within the algorithms

“Everybody has to take in consideration social signals, but it’s one of so many signals to make the right decision…So yes, absolutely it will be part of our strategy. Yes, it will be embedded in many of our products.”

Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette

Bing, as well as Google have been looking towards the social web in terms of their future product development. Certainly the days of serving standard results towards the masses appear to be a thing of the past (certainly it would appear we have moved on from the Model T search results (think Henry Ford’s famous quote – “the customer can have any colour as long as it is black”)) , with personalisation amongst other things a significant part of planning moving forward.

“If you look at today’s consumer web, by and large up to this point the search experience is designed as if you are the only person on the planet,” said Qi Lu, head of Bing at Microsoft.

However the extent to which one may rely on social triggers, one can’t help is open to debate for a number of reasons:

  • Utilising one’s circle of friends may not be indicative of ones true preferences. What works for Peter may not work for Paul (so to speak) , thus there is tipping point as to how far you rely on ‘peer review’
  • Noise can be a particular issue when evaluating social signals. Other factors need to be taken into account in order to sort out the wheat from the chaff
  • Many social channels are open to ‘influence’.  The development of automated accounts for example could significantly enhance the quantity of signals.
  • This doesn’t solve the age old problem the search engines faced with links. At the end of the day, the day Google used links as an important part of their search engine algorithm was the day that links became commodotised. I can’t help thinking, the day the search engines place greater prominence on the social factor is the day we start down that slippery slope once again – but this time in terms of social.
  • Privacy issues may still curtail how far this can be pushed. I rememer Joost de Valk and Bas (van den Beld) both taling about the privacy concerns when facebook changed their privacy settings last year, and one only has to look how many countries have taken to the Google Street View campaign to see that the social factor could potentially hit some snags here.

Social search may still significantly reignite the search wars – whether this be with the existing players or via allowing alternative entrants to enter the market. If social search makes search results even better, then history has shown that the most relevant search algorithm will ultimately determine whether or not users stay – or whether they decide to use someone else, similarly to how Google’s rise to power came at the expense of Altavista – due in the main part to the way that pagerank helped make search results more relevant.

Further to this, one has to consider the fact that modern day search engines are about so much more than just search. Players like Bing (MSN), Yahoo and Google are all actively engaged across other channels such as display, where social plays just as much of a factor in the new display landscape (with new technologies such as behavioural retargetting being introduced). As such the battleground,is bigger but there is no doubt that it is going to be a hugely important part of the search engines forward thinking, both for display and for search – and most definitely as part of the organic results moving forward. I will finish with a quote from Tom Stocky:

“We do not want users to have to think about search,” he said. “We want the interface to be invisible.”. “We try to build for what does not exist yet- and so far the world has continued to catch up.”


Written By
Peter has been around the industry for a while now, having previously headed up both search and SEO operations at Connectpoint (now Amaze), Mediavest, Brilliant Media and now Search & Social Director for Mediacom.
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