Google social search brouhaha
January 18th, 2012 by ravi

A few days ago Google announced a change to Search, awkwardly named (as is their wont) Google Plus your World, and the Google first responders have responded with suitable outrage (as is their wont). For a good rundown of all the noise read this TPM post. “Google just broke it’s search engine” – that’s Farhad Manjoo on Slate. The TPM guy, Carl Franzen, went with the more subtle “Google Search is Dead“.

The rub? Google has started displaying results from your social network as part of its search results. That’s the “your world” part of Google Plus Your World (henceforth G+YW). It’s the Plus part though that has tech bloggers in a huff. In particular, the fact that your social world that Google Search reports from happens to comprise of one social network: Google’s own Google Plus.

Hence the outrage: Google is disingenuously shutting Facebook and Twitter (among others) out of search results using this new “feature”.

But are they? It would help to separate the issues here.

First, one could argue the value of including social networks in search results at all. I would. But Google has been doing that for a while now with Google Realtime. And in this new product G+YW, Google delineates the social search results from the “real” search results, rendering the new capability a minor annoyance at worst.

Second, one could argue (as most bloggers do) that this is not merely unfair to Facebook or Twitter but also the search user. As Manjoo writes, a user searching for “Mark Zuckerberg” (why?) would be presented not Zuckerberg’s well populated page in Facebook but instead his empty one on Google Plus. Thus, search is broken. Because the results no longer reflect true ranking of content.

The point about delineated results applies to this second objection as well – if Google separates and identifies social search results, the real results that follow it (a link to a Wikipedia page about Zuck and then his Facebook page) or appear alongside do reflect true rank and are easily available to the higher primates among the user base. Again, this aggregated but delineated result output is not new. For instance, searching for Zuckerberg in Google Search (without G+YW) returns a block of “Recent News” links at the top, which while of temporal relevance have no great value in educating the general populace about said young lad.

But surely Google can search and include links shared on Twitter in this “your world” section, can’t they? No, actually, says Luigi Montanez, because Twitter has in fact explicitly instructed Google not to follow such links in tweets:

But we’ll never see “Jane Smith shared this on Twitter” because Twitter uses rel=nofollow on all outbound links in tweets. So even if @JaneSmith shared a relevant link, Twitter explicitly told Google not to index that link. Google will still index the text of the tweet. But without knowing what link the tweet points to, Google has no way inform us that a link was shared on Twitter.

Remember that Google search results work by PageRank which is essentially a way of weighting pages based on inbound links to them. Google can also not display results from your Facebook social world or Twitter social world unless each of those networks shares information on those relationships with Google.


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