Search and Social: How The Two Will Soon Become One

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ben Elowitz (@elowitz).  Elowitz is the co-founder and CEO of next-generation media company Wetpaint, and the author of the Digital Quarters blog about the future of digital media. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile (NILE).

Bing and Google each recently unveiled its own new search interface, designed to better intuit your intent and help you get to the one best answer more efficiently.  And they’ve meet it ever more clear that search is heading straight for a merger with social.

The changes are smart.  Google’s knowledge graph is useful – when I search for certain things, I just want a cheat sheet.  What is Faraday’s Law, again?  What exactly is a geoduck?

But Bing’s new feature – “people who might know” – is even smarter.  This is the first major attempt at a merger of search and social – unless you count Search Plus Your World, which I don’t – and this is undeniably the way we’re headed.  There’s a lot of information on the internet, but getting the right info from the right person is still a huge, and mostly unsolved, undertaking.  Nobody knows the answers better than, well, somebody who knows the answers.  And so much the better if it’s someone I trust. (Thank you, Jeff, for the Singapore recommendations!)  The fundamental insight is that when I ask a question, there are lots of ways to help me find the best answer.  If you don’t have it, point me in the direction of someone who does.  Don’t make me ask the same question in a million permutations and sift through a list of 20 possible right answers every time.

What’s more interesting is that this is the biggest step forward we’ve seen since search results started looking 12 years ago the way they still do today (just with more images and toolbars now – exactly what Google got rid of back then!).

Stagnation followed by the springtime of innovation is probably the surest sign that a major disruption is imminent.  (And if that weren’t enough, just think of how much Facebook’s stock price would rise if they captured even a small share in search.)

What’s the endgame?  In 10 years, I’ll still need recipes for dinner.  And recommendations for hotels in a new vacation spot.  And to find something to do on the weekend.  I know how I would make these decisions today, but how will I make them in 2022?

The true merger of social and search will look nothing like the search we know today.  I don’t even think we’ll call it “search.”

The social search of tomorrow will be more like a combination of a whip-smart personal assistant and an intuitive, considerate significant other.  But one who’s exponentially more efficient and who doesn’t mind being woken up at 3am.  (I’m lucky, but not THAT lucky!)

Let’s put on our future-goggles and imagine how a fully social, personal-data-powered search would change our day-to-day:

Proactive:  It’s Tuesday night and I’m hungry.  Luckily, my mobile knows that I just got a CSA box containing sweet potatoes (Full Circle Farm’s Facebook integration), and that I tend to eat at home on Tuesdays (according to my historical pattern of check-ins).  It also knows that it’s cold and raining outside.  Before I’ve gotten around to opening a cookbook or the Epicurious app, my mobile pushes me a sweet potato soup recipe that my certified-foodie friend raved about on Facebook last week.

Personal:  Arrive at the Sao Paulo airport and search on my mobile for the city’s public transit map.  My device knows that I’ve never been there (even though I bought a phrase book on Amazon last week), and it also knows (from scanning TripAdvisor comments about Sao Paulo buses) that the public transit is impossible to navigate for newcomers.  While the map is loading, a message appears gently encouraging me to consider a rental car instead – there happens to be a great deal on an Audi (my favorite(!) as noted on Facebook) at the rental counter 10 feet away.  Talk about targeting!

Social:  Florence and the Machine is touring in New York, and I’m dying to go see them.  I called the usual suspects, and they’re out of town during the concert.  The only thing worse than not going is going alone.  But who else do I know who loves them like I do?  That’s a lay-up for a socially powered search if ever there was one.  Two words:  “Jason Hirschhorn”.  Is that so hard?

There are a hundred other decisions that would be made immeasurably easier with the help of a really good personal assistant – one who knows your schedule and your preferences (and the schedule and preferences of your friends and family); one who has excellent research skills and can track down the appropriate expert on any issue.  (But no, I’m sure it still won’t replace Larisa.)

Most of us don’t have personal assistants.  But we have left a heck of a trail of our interests, associates, habits, and dislikes.  It will take some algorithm to turn that trail of behavioral and social data – combined with the wisdom of topical experts and the vast repository of information that is the internet – into a set of smart, personalized answers for you and me.  But that’s why Google and Facebook and Apple hire engineers with such big brains.

And, surprise!, the better they understand our brains (read: intent, context, and relationships) the better the match they can serve up to an advertiser.  And that means an outrageously good search not only retains audience better, but would improve ad rates.

We’re on the verge of shifting from a search model in which the user is still doing all of the heavy lifting to one where powerful algorithms enable our devices to anticipate our needs and do most of the sifting and evaluating for us.  In the meantime, though, we’re stuck in a “hairball of complexity” (to borrow Adam Richardson’s TV industry analogy) while the industry struggles to find the way from A to B.

The key is in having software that recognizes us as whole people. (And isn’t that exactly the promise of social?)  Now search is undergoing a massive transformation from receiving input in the form of queries – each independent and atomic – to understanding its input in the form of people, who have personal history, context, and relationships.  That means delivering the right result depends on who is asking.  Which is sooooo true.  I don’t like the same music as my teenage niece, and she doesn’t like the same restaurants I do.  Why should we both get the same search results?

Apple’s Siri is certainly the closest, at least in spirit, to the eventual reincarnation of search as personal assistant, even as its true capability has far to go.  The voice-activated question-and-answer experience is light years ahead of the long list of links on a page that still defines search on Google and Bing.  But the trick that remains is to gather, combine and analyze data from myriad sources – social interactions, behavioral data, expert opinions – and deliver it back to the user in a way that makes decision-making more efficient than most of us can imagine.

With all of that time I used to spend inefficiently making decisions suddenly freed up, what will I do?  I’ve been meaning to plan a trip to Sao Paulo….

[Top image via Digital Times.]