Is Google Asking The Wrong Question With Social?

Comment

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

More TechCrunch

Tags

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

16 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

3 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

3 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies