The Future of Search: Social Search

May 11, 2006

Google’s done it again. Masked in yesterday’s seemingly mediocre announcements during Google’s Press Day 2006, came what I consider to be major news: Google knows what the future of search looks like, and is well on the way to implementing it.

Then again, maybe Google did in fact let us in on the bigger news, though I’d venture to say most did not understand the enormity of what was being said. Take this quote from Google’s press release:

The products all incorporate new capabilities that leverage user communities, enabling users to either share more information with others or benefit from other users’ expertise to improve the accuracy of search results.

These products “leverage user communities” to “improve the accuracy of search”. Sounds benign, but is it? Let’s look at Google Co-op, an announced product that drew alot of shrugged shoulders from the press according to reports I’ve read. Google describes Co-op as follows:

Google Co-op beta is a community where users can contribute their knowledge and expertise to improve Google search for everyone. Organizations, businesses, or individuals can label web pages relevant to their areas of expertise or create specialized links to which users can subscribe.

Great. On first glance, I can browse a directory of features, called Subscribed Links, to add to my Google search results. Google’s automatically subscribed me to a number of them, including a range of credible health information sources. Now, doing a search for ”cancer” lets me refine my search by treatment, and the top few results are those recommended (labeled) by the sources I’ve subscribed to, such as the National Library of Medicine.

Ahh, but let’s dig deeper. I’m informed of who labeled it directly in my search results, and I can view the source’s profile. I can see what else the source has labeled and even search them.

Here’s where it gets really cool. Sure there’s contributing organizations and web sites, but take an individual contributor. Dr. Enoch Choi, Family Medicine Physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation is one such contributor. Trust his recommendations? Subscribe to them and the next time you search you may find that Dr. Choi has recommended a particular website. Interested in what he himself has subscribed to? Find out and subscribe to them yourself.

I remember nearly two summers ago, before I moved to New York City, I was speaking to my mother, sitting on a bench on the shores of Lake Washington in Seattle’s gorgeous Seward Park. I had spent much of the summer researching everything from social technologies to socialism, economics to e-commerce, and I was really immersed in the big vision (yes, some would say I’m always). That day, on the bench, I tried to explain some of what I felt the future held to my mom.

I said that one day you’d find products to purchase based on whether those you trust recommend them. I said you’d find your doctor based on what others you trust are saying. I said that this way everyone and everything in the world would have a rating, a karma, more or less. A subjective rating, personal to you and what you’ve expressed (Dr. Choi may be trusted by others, but perhaps not by those you yourself trust). And somewhat of an objective rating, too (perhaps society should know if an overwhelming majority of people report negative experiences with a product).

I think I’m relaying this more eloquently now, but my mom must have thought I was nuts. It didn’t help that I had a huge fro at the time. Yet now, it’s tangible and you can see and touch what I mean. Google’s sown the seeds, and they will of course cultivate it. Soon, my search results will be populated with rich, meaningful information from sources I trust. It’s a social network and search combined. Social search.

Soon, imagine your doctor or health clinic publishing a link to their recommendations. I imagine Google will soon have little buttons for that exact use, much as they’ve done with RSS feeds (like the one on this site) and event items for Google Calendar. Subscribe, and next time you’re searching, you just might see a link your clinic has recommended.

The media constantly reports that Yahoo’s edge is the social aspect of search, that this is how they’re working to distinguise themselves from Google in search. I always thought that this was one of few things Yahoo had going for them in terms of direction, definitely the most interesting. But I was sure Google wasn’t sitting on its haunches, given that this is obviously where search is going.

With structured content (Google Base) and social search (Co-op) in particular, Google’s well on the way to the future. The reason why this whole industry revolves around Search is because it all starts there — people express, in their own words, and into a simple little box, what they’re looking for or what they’re looking to do, and Search helps them take the next step.

Now, I can’t help but say again that this entire ecosystem will one day be built into the Open Internet itself, not solely Google-powered infrastructure. Google knows this, and I think they’re nearly as Open as one can be while still innovating given current limitations. I know that’s very vague, but I’ll continue sharing more thoughts over time. We’re just beginning. :)

It’s all about people. Let’s unleash their potential. More on that soon, too.