Last week, Google changed the rules of Web search with a relatively low-key innovation that I expect will permeate the search engine giant’s future strategy.
Google Social Search is an experimental program that integrates content from a user’s social network into search results. When enabled, the first page of Google search results includes a few links at the bottom to related content from a member’s social network. Google derives this information from the profiles people build when creating a Google account. It also taps into other Google tools to make assumptions about what’s important to a member.
For example, if you subscribe to blogs in Google Reader, the search engine now presumes that that content is important to you and elevates it in search results.
Social Search continues Google’s efforts – which began with a year ago with SearchWiki – to customize the search process. SearchWiki enables logged-in users to shuffle their own search results, promoting some and demoting or eliminating others. Users can also annotate their search results. Social Search goes one step further, and it’s a big step. The search engine now makes assumptions about your interests based upon your friends network.
This has tremendous utility. If I want to find a steakhouse in Dallas, I can now see recommendations from my friends directly in my search results. Google already annotates some commercial results with reviews it gathers from online review sites. It’s a small step to expect that I’ll soon be able to promote my friends’ reviews to the top of the heap.
Last week, I had the chance to discuss these developments with Mike Moran, whose book, Search Engine Marketing, Inc., remains one of my favorite texts for understanding the Internet. I proposed to Mike that Google’s ambition was to make the entire Internet a social network. His response was that they’re already mostly there.
In his analysis, Google is extending the customization features of SearchWiki to now include input from trusted third parties. We’re already at the point where no two registered Google users see the same results for most of their queries. And this is just the beginning. For better or for worse, Google knows a lot more about our online behavior than it uses.
For people like myself who regularly use Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Documents, the company is now in a position to capture a great deal of information about what I do online because it can peek inside most of the written content I create. The obvious privacy issues aside (and I’m not a believer in Big Brother), this puts Google in a position to evolve its search strategy in a much more customized direction. Google can only go so far before the “creepiness” factor sets in, but there’s still plenty of runway to experiment in making the search experience more personal.
For marketers, this has interesting implications. Many of us are now comfortable with the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) but what will we do when every user’s search results are unique? We could be looking at a future in which search engine performance is determined as much by opinions from people online as it is by page titles and domain names. Although inbound links already factor into Google’s search results, the relationship of the people doing the linking to the person doing the searching will be a new variable. SEO itself may become a social pursuit.
Don’t underestimate the value of social search. Compete.com estimates that search.twitter.com attracted nearly 3,000,000 unique visitors in September. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to Google, but it’s up 550% year-over-year. Now that Twitter has a deal with Microsoft to deliver its search results over Bing (and speculation is that a deal with Google will follow) we are likely to see more creative efforts to integrate social content.Three years from now, the SEO tactics we’ve work so hard to learn may seem quaint indeed.