Many excellent ideas in the social space, including those from Google, are often hampered by poor execution rather than any fault with the service on offer. Search Plus would appear to be no exception.
I have long been an advocate of social search and called on Google to integrate it into normal search back in August 2010. I also wrote that there were 3 ways Google could use search to have an impact in social:
Using likes, shares, tweets etc. to influence search results and use this to help provide a global real-time trending solution.
At the time, Facebook was driving 13% of all traffic compared to 7% from Google - no doubt due to the social element. It wasn't a worrying statistic for Google but I said:
"with their own social network, they could get their hands on some of those referrals and build it into their recommendations".
By integrating social into search I envisaged the provision of additional related content - some kind of “you may also like” arrangement but wasn't sure if it could be successfully pulled off in real-time.
The heavy integration Plus into search has made this easier than I thought (although not as wide-ranging) and the first elements of related content are Google+ user profiles and pages associated with that particular topic.
Here I mentioned the possibility for real-time stats and integrating tools such as Google Analytics. As we know, Analytics has since incorporated both social interactions and real-time results into its reports.
More recently I stated that Google Ripples could form the "basis for some kind of analytic offering, especially for Brand Pages when they arrive." The combination of real-time & social statistics combined with effective visual utilities would be a game changing toolset for brands to have within the social network they are using.
There may be trouble ahead
So Search Plus, at its root, is quite similar to how I expected it might be - it ticks a lot of the boxes but still suffers from issues the impact of which could have been reduced with better execution.
The biggest, and most obvious, issue which has been the subject of countless online column inches (here and beyond) is the overwhelming amount of Google+ data compared to other sources. Search results do return other sources (Live Journal, FriendFeed, WordPress etc.) but the sheer volume of data creates an imbalance and it is easy to see why the likes of Twitter are so incensed.
Secondly, and quite infuriatingly, is the continued idea of "suggested users" based on popularity. The "related people" returned by searching for certain topics suffers from the same problems that caused Robert Scoble to ask to be removed from the Google+ suggested users list.
We are presented with a link advising how we too could appear in that list but the answer is that it is just another self-perpetuating popularity contest:
"The more quality content you create and the more people that engage with you, the more prominent your profile will become".
And so we have the vicious circle; the most popular will be shown and by default get more followers by being on the list meaning their place is assured in future. Rather than just generic "related people" lists there must be a way to make it more dynamic thus preventing us from always being shown the same "elite" users.
Finally, people get angry when they feel things are being thrust upon them. My previous thoughts that Google could be better served by not making social search the default or, perhaps, prompting you when using it for the first time (maybe also every now and then afterwards) to actually choose your method of search might have lessened the impact.
As with Google+ itself Search Plus is suffering from the perception that it goes against Google's do no evil mantra. If we ignore the playground "he said, she said" shenanigans between Google and Twitter the overwhelming quantity of Google+ items in search results gives the impression that the social network is being hugely favoured (even if that isn't Google's intention).
Looking back at the original social search (when results were shown in a different section) we can see a different approach. Social results then would contain:
- Websites, blogs, public profiles, and other content linked from your friends’ Google profiles
- Web content, such as status updates, tweets, and reviews, from links that appear in the Google profiles of your friends and contacts
- Images posted publicly from members of your social circle on Picasa Web and from websites that appear on their Google profiles
- Relevant articles from your Google Reader subscriptions
A lot of this had been superseded by Google+ but the second item is really worth looking at again: Web content, such as status updates, tweets, and reviews, from links that appear in the Google profiles of your friends and contacts. In fact, each of the first three items refer to links the on users profiles.
We all furnish our Google+ profiles with other accounts, our recommended links and sites to which we contribute in order for Google to extend its knowledge of who we are but that knowledge seems forgotten once we perform a search.
With Search+ we appear to have taken a backwards step with the data Google intends to show us.
Providing a better balance of content based on the knowledge Google has about its users would be an obvious step in combating some of the criticisms of a Plus-heavy system. Combining with a less aggressive approach to forcing the changes on to its users could have made Search Plus a successful launch but, as is too often the case, it has been marred by controversy.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but previous experience is an equally effective teacher, we just have to learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, it seems that Google sometimes doesn't.
Image by Jeffery Beall