What You Tell A Search Box

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There is no doubt that as the Internet evolves, so too must the search engines.

As someone who was there when the first search engines came online (in fact, I helped launch one of them), it’s no surprise that we’ve evolved from basic search to search integrated with relevant advertising, to search beyond text (you can now search images, audio and video). It’s also no surprise that search powers some of the biggest online platforms we have (from YouTube and Facebook to Twitter and Flickr). Without search, the Web isn’t all that useful.

As the Web becomes more social, so too much the search engines.

As we move away from static web pages and indexed content to a world of shares, likes and following of the people we know and are connected to, it should come as no shock that search engines must begin to integrate this type of content into their indexing and results to stay relevant and useful. In the past little while, we’ve seen indications of what this looks like (Google now displays "real-time" results for searches that are pulling content from places like Twitter), etc… Just yesterday, Microsoft‘s Bing announced a partnership with Facebook to make their search results more "social." MSNBC posted a news item titled, Facebook and Bing team-up for social search, yesterday that explains this evolution in search engine results:

"Today, Facebook dips its social-media chocolate into Microsoft Bing’s peanut butter, introducing a ‘social search’ engine where Facebook friends and their ‘likes’ are factored into search results. The end product is what it sounds like: If you search for movies and restaurants, some of the results represent what your friends have selected. If you search for people, those with more connections to you pop up first."

Be careful of social search.

If you’ve been playing along at home, you may be surprised to hear me say the words, "be careful" of anything that has to do with search engines and social media (considering what I do for a living and considering that those two areas are personal passions of mine), but yes… be careful. Searching for information is not the same as connecting to people.

We tell things to a search engine that we wouldn’t even tell our families and closest friends.

Would I mind if everything I’ve done on Facebook were made public? No. Not all. Would I mind if every search I had ever done were made public. Yes. Very much so. While these recent announcements from Bing, Facebook, Google and Twitter are fairly innocuous (and I’m the last person to put on a tinfoil hat and dive into the ocean of conspiracy theory), stop to think about what the business behind this about. The idea here is simple: the more of the Web that is indexed, edited and aggregated for all consumers, the easier it is to use, and the more people use it. The company that figures out this magic formula wins. They get the traffic, usage, attention and engagement. It’s in their best interest to make everything online findable and connectable (and this includes the content you are creating and/or requesting).

Here’s a simple exercise:

Write down everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) you search for online in one week. Save it in a document. After that week, go and take a look at that list. Now ask yourself the question again: do you want all of this public?

It’s the little big things.

Who cares if people know you like a local pizza joint, or that you recommend a certain coffee house? That’s fine and that’s the majority of searches, but dig a little deeper. Imagine you have just been diagnosed with MS. You haven’t told your family or boss yet. You’re looking for support, trying to figure stuff out. You definitely don’t want the insurance companies to know just yet. Would you like that public? How about this: your child is acting up in school (in this instance, your kid is the bully). You start looking online for resources and information, would you like people to know that your kid is acting up? Take any addiction (drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc…), medical issue or any other personal issue (like the odd time you watch some adult content online), and keep asking yourself if you would like all of this made public?

It won’t happen. We’re not there.

True enough. We’re not there with social search yet, and this probably won’t happen (people will revolt!), but we do have to be vigilant. We do have to able to acknowledge that even these first strikes at figuring out what social search is and what it means is a step closer in the direction I outlined in the paragraph above, and further away from the point we were at a few moments ago when search was (fairly) anonymous and private.

It’s exciting to get all excited about social search. It’s a little scary too… isn’t it?


  1. Good points, Mitch. I actually am becoming a big fan of this Social Search concept because it’s going to stir the pot of search engine results, particularly related to PPC. What’s going to be more valuable to me, the consumer? Paid adwords or what my social graph has to recommend, where applicable?
    Countries like Germany have such strict privacy policies and there will be such an uproar when people realize the negatives that you pointed out, much like Facebook Beacon, that there will be some controls put in place or else the backlash will be too great.
    As we move forward in time, those that have things to hide are going to have more and more trouble hiding while those with nothing to hide will benefit more and more. There will be some collateral damage in-between now and then, hide and share. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out and where that public/private line ends up (likely never fixed in one place).

  2. Hi Mitch, your post made me think a bit about all this and yeah, this is a bit scary when you think about the way it could end. (I wish it won’t turn like this!)
    I think it is time for most of us to take a look at our privacy settings and manage things we don’t mind to share as “public stuff”.
    Social media is a great revolution and it is really useful when we do searches, but like everything, there are always two sides on the medal… A good and useful one, and another which is a bad and dark.
    It’s like FourSquare. The main idea is incredible for local stores, local market, promotion to regular customers, etc, but when you take a look at it carefully in a neutral way, it is an open view on all your daily moves. Welcome home burglars !
    I think everyone should be more “careful” like you say, as a “media publisher” these days because one day, you won’t find it very funny, as an exemple, when your last party becomes the main subject of conversation at work…

  3. Social and seach engines may end up becoming less likey peanut butter and chocolate, and more like peanut butter and bbq sauce. Each is great on their own, but do we want to put them together??

  4. It will also be interesting to see how the privacy/control setting change. It still feels like the average user struggles with understanding what they are and how to use them. This feels like the beginning of another Pandora’s box. We shall see.

  5. Your FourSquare comment reminds of that website, Please Rob Me (check it out – it’s probably not online anymore).
    One of the big trends we’re going to see is Social Media control – how to make changes to your social graph that keep the good stuff flowing and the bad stuff blocked. But, think about being logged into Google (which most of us are – all of the time)… it does know everything at this point. It reminds of the whole, “who watches the watchmen” scenario.

  6. You had me at chocolate, won me with peanut butter.
    I think there is a natural gravitation to incorporate social into searches. After all, social is stealing some of the search engine’s thunder.
    My hope is that it is a well thought out process and allows for privacy settings. This will be the tricky part, maintaining what little privacy we have left.
    I guess we’ll find out soon enough as two of the world’s biggest corporations notorious for their security flaws partner up to index our every move.

  7. Mitch,
    It’s always been a little scary. Anything and everything ever published about you on the Internet is there for all to see, forever. It can’t be deleted or controlled.
    That’s also exciting, but scary.

  8. I have a story that your post reminded me of.
    Few months ago Blizzard introduced “Real ID” into their ever popular World of Warcraft game, a system which allows people to add friends using their account login (=email address), in order to show them real first and last name, keep track of them across all Blizzard games and know exactly what they are doing within that particular game. Of course it’s a system meant to be used for people you’re comfortable in sharing this level of information with.
    The big flop was when they announced they would implement mandatory Real ID connection to game forums as well. Basically, everyone posting on their forums (included tech support ones) would have to show everyone their real first and last name, including Blizzard moderators and employees, filling forever the gap between real life identity and gaming one.
    This generated a complaints thread with 2495 *pages* of replies of an angry mob of customers, eventually forcing Blizzard to pull off the change.
    I am confident that our searches becoming public domain would generate far more complaints, which makes me believe it is for the moment, as you mention, an impossible outcome, *if* we keep being vigilant about it.

  9. Mitch,
    Good points. The recent series by WSJ about privacy and the ability of companies to mine vast amounts of disparate data adds another dimension to the social search debate. I think privacy settings are grossly simplistic tools for dealing with the issue. The degrees of disclosure you exercise in your conversations with others are many and complex. One of the biggest issues is Del’s point (you raise it as well in your example of a health problem), online disclosure is permanent, you can’t undo it. It even survives your death. Online its tough to change your mind.
    The best course at this point is exactly what you’re doing. Educate everyone and keep them thinking about it. “do no evil” does not give me comfort even though I use Google everyday. Thanks for making the point.

  10. Good article, this will definitely be an interesting scenario play out. I have a feeling FB might screw it up somehow.

  11. I’m I the only one left that loves the internet for it’s anonymity?
    I see no benefit to social searches, if you want to know what you friends like ask them. No-one seems to have anything real to state on Face book so use it to ask about what your searching for and your friends will help. I don’t need to know what my friends search for.
    I see it narrowing the internet a bit as well.
    Think about all the times you searched around looking and looking for say item B and finding other sites and information you didn’t expect.
    Now you hit bing to look for item B and see Joe found item B right off and never stubbed into any of the hidden internet treasures you might have found.

  12. On of the executives said this yesterday.”Bing can see no more about you than anyone who goes to your Facebook page can see,” and, additionally, “What you search on Bing doesn’t get sent to Facebook,”
    I was watching the live stream of the conference and there was someone who made a question that directly addresses your concern. The question went something like what if you searched for something you didn’t want other people to know about. And the one of the people from Bing said that they do not store the information not does it send back any information to Facebook.
    Upon hearing this, most of the privacy concerns were at ease. So I hope that they stay true to this statement.

  13. Please pardon the typos from my comment. I meant to say “one” on the first word and “nor” on the last sentence of the second paragraph.

  14. To be fair, Facebook’s social search is currently only connected to Facebook Like, not everything else you say or do on Facebook. But your point is dead-on, and which is why I turned off my public search settings earlier this year. While my Facebook profile used to be a top-10 Google result for my name, it is no longer because I didn’t want the world finding me there. What happens on Facebook (for me) stays on Facebook.

  15. But when you’re publishing it, you’re aware that you’re doing it (if you’re not, you’re just ignorant). In this instance, there is a social contract that your searches are private. If any one of the search engines decides to change that contract, I’m not sure how much recourse we have as individuals.

  16. We use platforms – like this Blog – to look into the looking-glass. We’re already not being vigilant. Look at Facebook: you have parents publishing pictures of their kids, friends, etc… – yes, we’re doing this to share, but it’s also a permanent record. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing… it simple is, but few parents are aware of their very public actions.
    People are afraid to sign-up to a website because their worried they’ll get spam, but their posting their lives in text, images, audio and video – step by step – for the world to see. It makes no sense.

  17. I think they’re trying things that we haven’t seen before. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t work. I praise them for trying instead of just cluttering the pages with terrible advertising.
    I’m confident that there will be more messes. I’m more confident that those messes will lead us to better place.

  18. … as long as Facebook complies. If they start to open up more and more (which they have been doing), we may not have a choice if we want to remain active participants. The truth is… I hope I am wrong about all of this.

  19. That’s why I left Facebook earlier this year. With moves like this, it’s harder and harder to maintain separate presences for “public me” and “private me” (and yes, I have the right to decide that). Facebook also has every right to follow its business plan too…where that’s not congruent with my own wishes, then we part ways. After all, it (and Bing) are free tools.
    My big problem now is when other companies like Klout start integrating Facebook as a measurement tool for professional authority. I still haven’t figured out how to deal with that…it all seems like a house of cards that is going to crash down at some point.
    (Going back to my foil-covered room now 🙂

  20. For me the perfect search engine would return answers based on like (to me) peoples choices. To illustrate, the Internet helped me find a wine guru who has very similar tastes to mine. When he raves about a new release I buy it. This makes one part of my life more simple, something we all want. I don’t want to poll my FB friends before I head to the LCBO, if I did I would always come home with a bottle of Yellow Tail! There has to be thousands of Bill Laidlaws out there,people with tastes just like mine. I want a search engine to find them for me, trusted personal sources, this I would pay for.

  21. Hello Mitch,
    Privacy issues are certainly something we should all be thinking about, and staying on top of, and being ready to defend, but I can’t help but think we are somewhat unable to see clearly where we are going from where we sit.
    Liked your comment…I’m confident that there will be more messes. I’m more confident that those messes will lead us to better place.
    Such a big space between vigilant and paranoid. Lots of room to spread out – with or without tin foil…:)

  22. It gets even scarier when people start talking about getting the government involved. Think about how global the Web is. How would government be able to pull this together for us? I’m not hopeful for them to save us.

  23. There are instances where social search would rock, but there are many instances where an agnostic search would be better. For instance, medical advice. I’d hate to have my social search on for medical advice only to find out that someone I respect actually has many quacky medical preferences.

  24. This is – and will be – an issue. Especially when they do integrate all of the platforms. Most people choose their spaces (and it’s usually not all of them). If Klout starts clicking in things like flickr and YouTube, I’m doomed too. I’m just not active there.

  25. The personal and the private are getting blurry, although I think this is really the early stage of exploration. However there is no doubt were moving more and more toward social everything online. I’m not sure this would really help with the relevance of results, although it may influence conversion in a very interesting way.

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