Glenn Derene suggests that Social Networks might replace search giant Google as a place where people will start their search. He bases this on a conversation he has had with a VC. A quote from his post:
So what is my VC friend talking about? The larger the Web grows, the more important search becomes, right? That’s probably so, and as a note of clarification, he changed his statement slightly to say, “Search, as we know it, is dead.” What he means is that, with the rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Second Life, LinkedIn and even Google’s own Orkut, the next generation of Web users may find what they want by using their social network rather than a search algorithm. After all, the people in your online social network should know you better than a mathematical equation, right?
I have written about this idea before too. Google and other search engines index an incredible amount of information, but it it often up to the experience of the search engine user to get a good result. If I ask the right question Google delivers quicker than anything else. If I ask the wrong question I’m forced to scroll though millions of search results to find what I need.
There are different possibilities to tackle that problem. We could replace the Google bot indexing by human indexing, like Mahaloo does. Humans can interpret information better than computers, but the downside is off course that they can process much less information too. We can create large encyclopedias on-line which are updated by anyone (Wikipedia), or by experts in the field (KNOL). We could analyze surfing behavior, social interaction and social graphs of people and use that information to provide the user with more targeted information (which for now is used more often in advertisement). This is where the VC friend is pointing too. If Facebook, or any other social networking site knows more about you, and your friends it might be able to do a better job at search. While I can agree with that up to a certain point (I’ll get to that), the article takes a false turn in my opinion. Glenn provies he following example:
But what may turn out to be the strongest signal of all is the footprint you make with your online identity. Consider how much information you voluntarily provide on your Facebook profile. Now imagine if you could combine that with your Netflix renting and Amazon buying habits. Then throw in the suggestions of your friends and the pages you visit the most often. All those various sources of information about you are currently stored in different locations—on your computer’s browser history, on your Facebook page, on the servers for Netflix and Amazon—but just imagine how accurate a search could be if every time you had a query, the mass of data about you that exists on the Internet could inform the results. (Google and Yahoo already do this to a limited extent by tracking your search history to refine results, and surely startups will try.)
This is the Walhalla of search, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A Social Network owners wet dream. But it’s just too good to be true. I don’t buy it. I’m not saying that knowing things about a person might help a service provider provide more targeted results, but I don’t know of a single example where this has been implemented successfully. Every social network site is hogging data to accomplish just this. Whether it is to target ads or to provide the user with search capabilities. But it is likely to fail at least as often as it will succeed. Google provides me in 80-90% of the time with the answer I’m looking for. If a search engine that knows about my profile fails half of the time, I wouldn’t bother using it.
Why would such an attempt fail half of the times (or something in that order)? Because it doesn’t take human behavior into account. There are at least two barriers that can hardly be overcome by any computer algorithm or data hog system. First of all, on-line I’m not who I really am off-line. On-line people can have multiple identities, lie about themselves, provide us with profiles that look better than real life. I wrote about that earlier in an article called “The Future of advertisement lies outside of Social Networks“. I wrote:
I’m hiding behind thousands of friends, only showing you the public me, a persiflage of real life. You might think that this universal social network will provide you better information than demography does now. Yes, I am 39 years old, married to a lovely wife, I have four kids and I live in the Netherlands. But that really is just a small, public part of me.
Here I am
Secondly, a computer algorithm can hardly interpret my mood of the day. Depending on how I feel, what I have experienced earlier, what I’m about to do in the future, the coffee I had for breakfast, etc, etc, I might be looking for different things when I type “I am looking for a car” in the search bar. Chances are that by taking into account my profile information, social graph, interactions on Facebook or any other social network, the “social search” algorithm will be way off.
Depending on the question you need answered, people will start using different search algorithms. If you want to know the phone number or address of a doctor you rarely visit, you will use Google. If you want to buy a new espresso machine, chances are that you will read all kinds of reviews on the Internet (which always contradict each other and are often biased) but will end up in a store tasting the espresso right there (nothing beats that experience). But if you need answers to complex questions, then the best way to go is to ask your family, friends, colleagues, Twitter followers. You will get the best answers there. Finding information is great, interacting about it is even better. No search engine or social search algorithm can beat that.
Social search algorithms will definitely have their place in search the coming years. But I doubt they’ll perform much better than Google does right now. Adding social information into a search query might work really well, but not always. And when it’s off, it’s likely to be way off.
I wouldn’t just write off Google yet.