Is Google Asking The Wrong Question With Social?

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Editor’s note: Guest contributor Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer internet, and social networks. He is based in Palo Alto and you can follow him on twitter @semilshah.

Today’s soft-launch of Google’s new social galaxy, Google+, raises one interesting question: Can Google, a massive, multinational, cash-rich, consumer technology company with multiple successful productivity applications and services, take its dough out of the oven and bake a social network into their bread?

Over the past year, Google has undergone some big changes. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt stepped down. Co-founder Larry Page stepped in, reshuffling the deck and tying employee bonuses to creating a successful social experience. The result seems to be a slick-looking yet potentially Wave-like confusing constellation of social “circles,” “huddles,” “hangouts,” and  “sparks” that could, theoretically, lay the foundation for new, more nuanced social networks to form. In the middle of all the reactions to today’s release, I believe it’s important to step back and ponder whether Google is focusing its efforts on the wrong problem, and in doing so, to investigate a potentially better fit that coincides with the company’s own DNA.

What made Google “Google” was its groundbreaking PageRank technology that allowed us to search the web more efficiently. Powered by a mandate to organize the world’s information online, Google trained all of us over more than a decade to tune our online search behavior to entering in keywords and symbols. As obvious as that seems today, this is not how humans as a species are wired to search for new information. Before the Internet, most “search” was conducted through offline directories and by the time-honored evolutionary tradition of asking questions. “Where would you recommend I stay on my trip to Hawaii?” “What dish did you order at that new restaurant in the hotel?” “Where can I get the best deal on that hotel?” Google has elegantly stripped down these queries and trained us to, instead, enter the following text in a search box: “Hawaii + hotel deal” or “Hawaii + restaurant + popular dish.”

Now, that might be how some geeks actually ask questions in real life, but this is not how we are wired to search. We are most accustomed to asking questions as an extension of our own curiosities. And while Google keyword search is incredibly efficient, the content it points us to is unfortunately declining in quality. There’s been enough debate about the proliferation of run-of-the-mill and high-end content farms, so I won’t beat that drum. The bottom line is that although it’s never been easier to search online, it’s getting harder and harder to find exactly what we’re looking for because there are perverse incentives to not only create, but also promote, keyword-optimized content.

The alternatives, however, don’t provide a clear path yet either. The idea of shifting search back to questions isn’t new. Ask tried it, as did Yahoo! Answers. More recently, companies like Aardvark (acquired by Google), Fluther (acquired by Twitter), Formspring, Quora, and AnyAsq are picking up where the 1.0 versions left off, each taking a slightly different tack and growing in slightly different ways. On Formspring and AnyAsq, users can invite the audience to ask them direct questions, provide answers to the ones they want to, and then remain searchable for others to peruse. On Quora, users can pose questions within topics or, if the question has already been asked, to search within the site for the answer, assuming someone has provided one. No doubt, Google and Twitter were thinking about capturing questions when they acquired the Aardvark and Fluther teams, respectively.

I wanted to lay all of this out to demonstrate that it’s the questions posed by people—not the people themselves—that are most central to Google’s DNA. In spite of this, the company has trained all of us to ask questions in unnatural ways.  The flurry of new companies trying to get back to questions demonstrates just how powerful that force can be.

With the threat Facebook is posing to the company, Google’s search strategy has been two-pronged: (1) to crop-dust the emerging mobile handset landscape with Android and, thereby, to have a huge footprint on mobile search; and (2) to “bake” social retroactively into its overall makeup, the digital equivalent of genetically modified food. On #1, Google’s acquisition of Android will prove to be one of its most important moves, though there remains much work to be done to provide some controls on the platform. On #2, however, I believe that while social isn’t perfect (can it ever be, online?), that war has already been won.

The fear for Google is that as more people spend more and more time on Facebook, people will search less by keyword and conduct more searches by discovering things through their friends online. We may chose our next vacation based on seeing where our friends have been, but we’re still going to ask them questions about the trip. This type of search, or social discovery, will become important, but it won’t dominate search—it’s just one channel, and different social networks exist for different parts of our lives.

Google still holds tremendous mindshare and user-intent for search. While in a perfect world it would have been helpful to require every GMail user to create a Google Profile account when they signed up (Whoops!), the reality is that Google is in a better position to organize all of the social signals we broadcast online rather than to organize all of the individuals making those signals.

Instead of building another social network, I’d like to see Google focus on helping us search through all the user-generated signals and content and to help us with our search, much of which is done offline through social questions, not keyword-speak. (Although, the threaded comments approach Google+ is using in the main stream it presents to users does lend itself to friends asking each other questions and answering them).  This approach would let Google focus on what it excels at, helping us find information online, especially information created by our friends and friends of friends, perhaps even in an instant. Now, that would be a huge plus.

Photo: Stefan Baudy