A Google+ Tempest In A Teacup

There has been a great quantity of vitriol corroding the social web over the last few days, a reaction to Google’s decision to optionally integrate Google+ features into their search. The complaint, as I understand it, is that some searches bring up Google+ results before they bring up results the complainants feel are more relevant.

Here’s the thing. Google certainly has an agenda here. But it’s not a destructive agenda, it’s merely Google-centric. Twitter made a Twitter-centric decision when they reduced their search profile last year, and Facebook has made Facebook-centric decisions almost exclusively since its creation.

Google is a datavore. All it wants to do is collect data, organize it, and then deliver it to people, peppered with ads and the occasional sales commission. Viewed from this perspective, the new social search is simple — innocuous. The biggest crime Google has committed is giving it such a cumbrous name.

“Search, plus Your World” (difficult to parse, more difficult to use in conversation) is about richer, deeper data related to your search terms, culled from your social contacts, than would normally appear in a search. And naturally, when it isn’t relevant, it isn’t applied: a social search for my name pulls my Google+ profile into the search box’s pole position, which I agree is a bit much — put it above, maybe? — but a search for “pasta puttanesca” gets me some recipes. So non-social searches, which compose a huge proportion of Google queries, are unaffected. That alone beggars the allegations — makes them seem whiny and out of proportion with the problem itself.

Though there is, no doubt, a problem. A search that is ostensibly social-focused should be pulling information primarily from Facebook and Twitter, right? I agree. Yet it doesn’t. And people’s accusing fingers jumped up to point at Google, though the problem isn’t Google’s. The service is incomplete — that’s inarguable. But there is no malevolence to its incompleteness, and I’m not convinced that it’s Google’s responsibility to make it complete. (Except for co-opting non-letter operators. That’s ridiculous, Google.)

Like I said, Google is a datavore. It eats data and it breathes services. When it has no data to eat, it is useless. What data does Google have from your friends on Facebook, the people you follow on Twitter? That data must be volunteered by the services which control it, and as Google pointed out saucily in response to recent criticism, those services are not very accommodating. The new search type is a deep search, providing rich data. What rich data does Facebook share? What deep search does Twitter permit? Google can’t produce something it doesn’t have, and what it does produce isn’t destructive to search — and if it were so, it can be turned off with a click. The suggestion that people won’t do this is at best poppycock, and at worst — flimflam.

If Google had access to this information, it would present it to the user — based, as always, on a proprietary calculation of relevance. Are people really suggesting that Google is suppressing relevant results, results that make the service better, in order to feature Google+ more prominently? Google wants to provide socially-determined search. Facebook and Twitter want you to do that kind of social search within their sites. These objectives are fundamentally at odds. Google went live anyway with its incomplete product, something it has done a dozen times before, and the only data it has available to scrape is its own. It would like Facebook and Twitter to provide data for it to pass on. How much they provide is up to them.

The objectives of these three big billy goats gruff, I said, are at odds, and it won’t do to say that Google should have access to Facebook data, or Twitter shouldn’t be providing recent tweets to display under someone’s handle in search. No one gets priority, because they’re all just companies trying to make a buck. The question is which one is going to eventually succumb to the will of the other. I don’t think it’ll be Google, who can make puppy dog eyes and say “it’s not our fault they don’t want to share with us.” And I don’t think Facebook even has the option – the logistics of putting their data out there are a nightmare, and the data would be frustratingly incomplete anyway. So Twitter, which unsurprisingly is complaining the loudest, will be the bough that bends.

As for the passive promotion of Google+ elsewhere in search (in the people and places box, for instance), that’s not very different from everywhere else it appears. Are they obligated to put “follow on Twitter” and “subscribe on Facebook”? I suspect they are able to but decided those things would be out of place among search results that so plainly exclude information from those services. They might be waiting for Twitter to come with an olive branch. Should it be the other way around? That, I think, is a matter of opinion.

There’s nothing controversial about competition. Google has started a new service that gives social data prominent placement. Ironically, the fact that people are complaining that it is not integrative enough (as opposed to Twitter and Facebook initiatives, which are often not integrative at all, and sometimes deliberately exclusive) testifies to Google’s adherence to their promise of even-handedness. I’d like to say that Google has offered a carrot and Twitter responded with a stick. But Google understand the power they have, and really, they’re using the carrot to beat on Twitter. Is that power a monopoly? The areas in which Google can be said to have a monopoly are vague and nebulous. This is certainly adjacent, but placing the issue correctly is one of great importance in the debate. I think it falls outside that area, which to me begs the question, but no doubt the discussion will continue, and Google’s actions will have repercussions further down the line.