In The Social Search Jungle With Google And Facebook

“I wanna be like you, I wanna talk like you” – King Louie, "The Jungle Book" (Disney version, of course)

Social search. It’s become the buzziest of buzz words in the search space over the past 12-18 months. Google+, Facebook’s Graph Search, and a host of other companies and signals of consumer data utilized for rankings have made this the hottest topic for discussion of where search is going.

That said, social search is still a bit of a mystery -- not for what it seemingly is in the minds of the search industry, but for what consumers want from it and whether those perceived benefits will ever be realized. Facebook obviously believes that associating you with friends that have common engagements is of great benefit. Google seemingly agrees through the advent of Google+, but is refining that approach to suit a very Google-like approach that suggests it is less about friends and more about select experts in given topics as defined by usage of circles.

But what about consumers? We surveyed 1,000 US Internet users and asked which they would prefer: Google to have more Facebook-like characteristics or Facebook to be more like Google? The answer? 72% of survey participants want Facebook to be more Google-like.

In trying to assess why this is the mood of the people, three observations jump out:

The importance & quality of search. Search as refined and now defined by Google has an explicit promise to consumers. Search gives you a myriad of choices that help you take action against your expressed intent. These choices may not be the sole influencer in the conversion of an action, yet they have a meaningful role, often (though not exclusively) late in the process. You know that’s what you are getting on Google. On Facebook, even with Graph Search, the ability to deliver on this promise is far from guaranteed. The quality of the network is the single greatest influencer; and for many, the personal network cannot sustain the model.

Connections are central to consumers. My single biggest takeaway is that consumers want more value and utility from Facebook. A Facebook that better marries my network and algorithmic content is a lucrative endeavor for all. But it’s not there and consumers know it. It also speaks to the challenge underlying Google+. Regardless of the hundreds of millions Google touts on the network, its primary value is to provide a social layer of data back to the mother ship search engine. The implied contract users signed with Google, not to be confused with the single login agreement pushed down, reads that Google will serve you organized information in an easily accessible fashion. To rewrite that contract to nclude being your social network is well beyond how most would ever see Google, and continues to challenge Google+ to be more than what it seems to be today.

Solution or Signal? Is social search the answer? I guess it depends on the question being asked. It would seem from the responses given that people would actually prefer “search social,” where the better parts of search make their way into social, providing a deeper layer of validation. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, the reason you associate on Facebook often has little to do with personal passions, at least at scale. High school, college, professional and familial connections are the top reasons for friending someone. How that helps you when you want to buy a car or talk sports is limited. That’s not true in an emerging class of vertical social networks, and it is definitely not true on search engines. For now, social search is more signal to me than solution. As for a better Facebook via search, Bing has an enormous opportunity here, but Facebook has to look deep inside and determine if they want to be more like Google to be the Facebook people want them to be.

Because, as Louie said, “You’ll see, it’s true. Someone like me can learn to be someone like you."

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