Jennifer Zeszut is the Chief Social Strategist at Lithium Technologies. Jennifer is the founder and former CEO of Scout Labs, a SAAS platform for real-time social media visibility and customer analytics which was acquired by Lithium in May 2010.
The battle between Google and Facebook heats up this week, as Google makes major enhancements to its Social Search feature. Now, your friends' content and recommendations will show up in search results while you are searching. Facebook refuses to give Google its social graph information, so Google must rely on the graph data of every other social network it can get its hands on (twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, etc.). Watch Google's little promo video here:
What's the big deal? Why is this so significant and what's the battle all about?
Google's PageRank algorithms revolutionalized search many years ago because by using linking behavior and stability of content, it offered us a way to see "relevant" stuff on top. It became the authoritative source for what's most relevant for me in the sea of content that exists out there. But relevance is not a THING. There are infinite ways to define relevance. News content is most relevant when its RECENT, which may be not true for websites, say. Today, given the rise of social networks, relationships and the opinions of people I know are influencing us more and more. There is a new potential paradigm for relevance now, and that's "what my friends like". It seems obvious, but shockingly, no one has really done social search very well yet. Even Google has only put their toe in the water with this release by returning their regular search results, sorted by their traditional relevance algorithm, and just appending social graph information to the result so that you know "your friend kelly liked this one".
What Google hasn't done, but what would be very interesting, is to have two results sets: one set of traditonally relevant (PageRanked) results, and then a second set of results filtered and ranked by "friend recommendations", forgeting PageRank all together. For example, I am heading to Monaco and I need a hotel there. When I do a search now, I get tens of thousands of results, with the most Google-algorithm-deemed "relevant" ones on top (the most links, the most traffic, the most enduring content, etc.) and I explore from there. But what if I ONLY saw results that came from the friends and family in my social graph? In this example, I would very likely get a BLANK PAGE, as my friends and family simply don't go to Monaco. They don't know hotels there. So, while purely social search (results from my immediate social graph) is interesting to contemplate, I feel like VERY little would come back for most searches, leaving the user dissatisfied and feeling like they must be missing quite a lot. And they'd be right.
And this is exactly why I don't think that Facebook will ultimately win the search battle. If I search on my Facebook page right now for "hotels in Monaco" nothing comes back. Now, more might come back if they opened up my tight-knit Facebook network to friends-of-friends and friends-of-friend-of-friends. But then that's not Facebook - not for me, at least. I want my Facebook to be selective and hand-picked and focused. It's the reason I read 80+% of my Facebook feed but only 5% of my Twitter feed.
The reality is that there are two DIFFERENT "communities" and I, consumer, want access to both. There is my immediate community of friends and family, and they carry significant weight in certain categories -- especially where aesthetic matters (kimmie knows my taste in food and if she likes a restaurant, then I probably will too). But there is another community - a virtual community of experts and influencers on a specific topic - people that travel to Monaco all the time, people who collect high-end watches.... I may not know ANY of those folks personally (yet), but I want to know what they recommend, much more so than my mom.
So I see Google as my virtual community summoner -- a virtual community I access via the search box, and influence is ALWAYS topic specific. In this case, I would prefer my search results ranked by the Influence of of the author with respect to the TOPIC IN AM SEARCHING ON. I want results ranked by people who go to Monaco all the time and whose opinions are trusted. I simply don't care what my mom likes.
Similarly, I wish Facebook would stay Facebook. Resist the temptation to open up the social graph more and more. Instead, be there when I want to know what my friends and family think and be great at it.
It's probably too much to ask the Internet giants to stay in their respective corners, but I believe strongly in knowing who you are, what role you play in the ecosystem and in consumers' hearts and minds. Then do THAT amazingly well. Push THAT envelope. Doing too much dilutes focus both internally and in the mind of the consumer, which is the biggest risk of all. Exhbit A: Yahoo.
Love to hear your thoughts.
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