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The Science of Social Search

The term “social search” was brought up in a meeting the other day, and I was asked to define it. In typical fashion I began the nebulous train of thought ramblings, inherited from my father. No one was setting foot on that locomotive headed straight for a pile of incoherent ideas, so I thought I’d better let the subject marinate. Like any good English major, I produced a metaphor to more adequately piece together my disjointed brain floaties.

Ok tech geeks; indulge my Mrs. Science persona for just a few moments while I regurgitate some Wikipedia facts for you. Gene flow is the exchange of genes between populations and between species. Gene transfer between species includes the formation of hybrid organisms. A genetic hybrid carries two different alleles of the same gene. It is proven that the more diverse the gene pool, the stronger the offspring.

“Heather, we understand that you beat the odds and made it through high school biology and can still remember how a pundit square works. Get to the point.”

I know, this seems completely erroneous to the topic of social search, but think about it: social search is really a hybrid of two very strong disciplines, Social Media and Search. When you combine the power of search and the influence of social media, you have a pretty great model for success.

What is social search? It defines a particular type of web search that accounts for the Social Graph of the person making a search query. The term “social graph” has been described as “the global mapping of everybody and how they’re related,” and was popularized at the 2007 Facebook f8 conference back in 2007. The search results yielded by a social search engine allow more visibility to content created or touched by users within the Social Graph. Social search can come in a few different forms, ranging from share bookmarks to content tagged with descriptive labels. The most advanced approach combines human intelligence with computer algorithms.

The term social search started popping up around 2004 and 2005 and was originally based upon Google’s PageRank algorithm, which measures a website’s importance based on link structure. In 2008, we saw a few startup companies that focused on ranking search results in alignment with users’ social graphs on social networks. Remember Mahalo, Scour, Wink, Parse.ly, and Sproose? Yeah, neither do I really. Mahalwho?

The social search channel has many obvious benefits like increased relevance based on results selected by real human users. It also creates a network of trusted individuals that provide a barometer of whether a particular result is considered relevant or not. It’s really this institution of “human judgment” that allow search results to go beyond a computer’s ability to analyze a web page. However, social search does put results at a higher risk for spam, but then again, so does going to the supermarket on a very strict budget. (Get it??)

So where is social search today? In my opinion, social search is the future and that’s not just because I work in search marketing….or maybe it is (it’s a chicken/egg situation). As a tool, social search exhibits the best qualities of social media and search, by serving up the most relevant and timely results to date. Facebook and Google are quite clearly blazing trails in social search land, with Facebook’s social graph concept expanding beyond relationships between individuals, showing the relationships with virtual non-human objects as well. Facebook “likes” and Google +1’s are becoming an integral and permanent fixture in search results, and an increasing number of web pages are giving users the option to “like,” +1, or share the content without ever leaving the page.

I’ve spoken about Google + [1] before, and I really believe its goal is to not directly compete with Facebook as a social networking platform, but rather use the networking as a means to an end. That end would be a more refined search engine that strikes a perfect balance between computer algorithm and human sentiment. Google + is a place to share, share, share. The more content shared on Google +, the stronger Google’s social search engine becomes. The current struggle Google+ faces is the majority of users trying to perceive and use it as a strictly social network, seeking a replacement for Facebook like Facebook was for MySpace. But as a platform, Google + has a much deeper functionality. It’s just…different.

I have said it before [2], I am a Facebook junkie and advocate seven years strong. However I understand its function, potential for growth, and limitations; it will never ever touch what Google has on search. Conversely, I don’t think Google + will ever gain the social networking momentum that Facebook has. Instead, it’s going to use the ability to share within a social network to create the largest and most efficient social search engine ever.

With Google + business pages [3] just added last week, massive amounts of fresh shareable content will be available. I’m very excited to see how this affects the user activity on Google +, since there has been a bit of a lull (even in my own personal activity) since the initial invitation hype a few months ago. It will also be a huge step forward not only for Google’s attempt at a social search engine but for the industry as a whole.

Social search, I think your parents, social media and search, did a fine job in creating such a unique and powerful tool, but now it’s up to us to raise you right.


About Heather Sundell

Heather has five years of experience in online and offline marketing. She graduated from The University of Southern California with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and absolutely no idea how USC football works. An aspiring cyclist, blogger, and cheese enthusiast, she is currently honing her Gen Y skills by doing all three at once.