Good Riddance To Social Search

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Remember how not too long ago the future of search — at least according to the big search engines — was social search? Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find any mention of social search on Google or Bing (let alone Yahoo Search). Let’s be thankful for that because social search was an ill-begotten idea to begin with.

The basic idea behind social search was that with all of the links and reviews we share on social media, search results could be made more relevant by including (and highlighting) that data right on the search results page. Because somebody you knew also shared (or liked, or +1’ed) a story, the theory was it was likely more interesting to you, too. Sounds good in theory, but in reality, it just cluttered up your search results.

social search

MG liked the idea of social search back in 2011.

Back in 2009, around the time Twitter started getting some mainstream traction, Google rolled out Social Search, a dedicated search engine for finding content from the likes of Twitter, Blogger, Google Reader and FriendFeed (yes, FriendFeed was once a thing). It then started rolling more of those features into the main search results page in 2011 and by 2012, Google went all in with its “Search, plus Your World” initiative that brought together Google+ (back when it was still a social network and wasn’t yet being sold as being something else Google can’t quite define itself) and search. Back then, when you searched for say [music], a little box on the right side of the screen would highlight Google+ users related to that query. That was great for pumping up those users’ Google+ follower counts, but not really interesting otherwise.

Ever since, Google has been deemphasizing social search to the point where today you barely notice it anywhere in Google’s search products. It’s probably still taking some of these social signals into account in its rankings, but I’ve got a feeling that it’s a very, very small factor.

For a long time, it looked like Bing was hoping to differentiate itself from Google by adding ever more social features to its search engine — including a very prominent side bar that would highlight social accounts from people it deemed “experts” and activity from your friends around a search query. Except for a few edge cases, it was mostly useless, too. Today you may find the occasional Twitter account highlighted in the sidebar, but that’s about it (and the same goes for Google, which still surfaces G+ accounts in the sidebar, too).

As a writer, I always liked how Google would highlight a story’s author in search results. That’s not really social search, of course, but it did put a face to a story just like the early version of social search did. Even this, however, the company canned this year in an admission that even that information didn’t turn out to be as useful as it had hoped (and didn’t influence what people clicked on). Google doesn’t make any decision without looking at the data, and the data clearly showed that social search wasn’t working. 

I think one of the reasons social search failed is because our social media “friendships” don’t actually represent our real-life tastes all that well. Just because we follow people on Twitter or are friends with old high school classmates on Facebook doesn’t mean we like the same restaurants they do or share the politics they do. At the end of the day, I’m more likely to trust an overall score on Yelp, for example, than a single person’s recommendation.

There’s only so much room on a single search results page, so whatever works best will get that space. Social search clearly did not. Instead, projects like Google’s Knowledge Graph and Bing’s equivalent have now taken over the sidebars of our search engines with information that’s actually useful.