The machines are dead. Social search will be owned by humans
Social search is being discussed, analysed and written about more than ever, thanks firstly to Google releasing their social search update ‘Search Plus Your World’ then Facebook and Twitter biting back with their own version of what Google’s social search should and could look like. For brands who are trying to keep ahead of the trends and make sure they’re prepared for the next phase in online marketing, it’s all getting a bit confusing. History (since the existence of Google) has taught us to optimise your content for Google above any other search engine, then this started to change when social media arrived and we had 2 different arenas to fight it out and get in front of your consumers. Then focus seemed to tip back to Google when they announced plans for social search. Only now it looks like they might not be the one with the solution. Right now social search is completely up in the air and the subject of a very public slugging match. But is there all this contention over who will own social search, because we’re reaching a completely new phase of search that takes power away from the engines and into the people.
Who owns the gateway?
In many ways, search is the last bastion of web 1.0 that is yet to fall. All around us, the internet is fostering a new social order – much less top down and much more grass roots. There is no one central owner of content. While it may originate from one source, it then reaches online, is republished, interpreted, redistributed and the community has complete control. With search, this is not the case.
Google is, quite simply, a monopoly struggling to survive in a system that no longer supports monopolies.
That is not to suggest that we don’t have a few very key players in social media (hello Facebook, Twitter and Youtube), but that the way Google operates as a search engine is no longer applicable. While the social search platforms may be the places in which some content is distributed, it is inherently social. Yes, you may be within Facebook’s walls but they have little to no control over what you can and can’t say, and also how quickly you can leave that walled garden to communicate via another social platform. This is not how Google operates. At the moment, they are the gateway to content. They are the ones in control of what you can and can’t find. This worked well, very well, for a long time but the hinges are starting to fall off because this is not what the future of social search looks like.
We are the engine
In much the same way that social media has lead to a proliferation of individual control online, separate to control from larger organisations, this is ultimately the way that social search will go. We are, without even realising it, turning into expert search engines as individuals. We are becoming adept at scanning through content ourselves, from a variety of sources including our offline and online communities & conversations, direct site visits, RSS subscriptions and, for now, Google search. What we then do is to absorb all this information, analyse it and then decide what might be worth sharing with our own communities. The search engines no longer hold the best content – we do – and we’re starting to take over.
This can perhaps be confirmed by looking at a recent study which found that 25% of the content we see on Twitter is deemed to be useless information not worth reading. Rightly so, the findings of this study have been disputed not in their accuracy but in their relevancy. Yes, there is going to be a large amount of content in social media that is going to be irrelevant, but that doesn’t devalue it. That is just part of life. We can optimise our brains as much as we want but there will never be an automatic filter for ‘usefulness’.
And herein lies the reason that the future of search lies in the human, not in the engine. While I can determine whether something will be interesting for my followers – and importantly – which followers will like which content – a search engine can never tell you that. There is no algorithm that can take into account individual authority on a subject, context, relevance, spontaneity and personal interest to return the best content for you. This is the job of humans and the humans are taking over.
Fighting the wrong battle
For pretty much everyone except Google, this presents a unique opportunity. While there have been challengers to Google’s authority over the years, these have pretty much fallen by the wayside as Google reigned supreme. But there has never been a challenge as significant as this, because Google is dealing with an unstoppable shift within the technological revolution that is being lead by people. But the battle needs to be taken out of the search arena directly. Bing are now making their own announcements for how they will improve social search, waving on the ride of Google’s negative publicity. A recent interview with their director of search outlined plans to use Twitter and Facebook more in their search results.
This is largely unsurprising, but Bing may be missing out on their best opportunity yet. They have far more favourable relationships with Twitter and Facebook (not forgetting Microsoft’s stake in Facebook) and what they need to do is forget about a standalone search product at all. What they instead need to do is bring their search capabilities to the platform themselves. Attempting to place a gateway between people and content that requires us to leave the social search site we’re on is going to have a very limited shelf-life. Search, and social search will stand to gain most when it goes the way of social media and relies on communities of people instead of engines to provide the gateways to content in completely new ways.