Now that Google+ is gaining popularity is there a conflict of interest between the social network and search? Is Google right to focus on promoting its own content?
Just when you thought the furore over Search Plus was abating pending the antitrust investigation by the FTC then we get engineers from Facebook, Twitter and MySpace providing a proof of concept bookmarklet which reworks Google's personalised results to include sources other than Google+ in an attempt to better "Focus on the user".
By way of debate, Jon Mitchell throws an interesting argument in to the pot saying "It's Not Wrong for Google to Focus on Its Own Users".
We are dealing with a whole can of semantics here.
On the one hand we have the distinction between search plus "Your World" and search plus "The World" with the former predominantly equating to our connections as a G+ user and the latter incorporating all our social engagement equally. On the other, we have the phrase "Focus on the user" - those outside of Google are referring to a generic user looking to get a cross-section of results whereas, obviously, Google are focusing on a user with a Plus account and all that it entails.
Jon asks (somewhat tongue in cheek) if it is right for Google to favour results from its own social network in results as, for those searching when logged in, Google+ pages and profiles "are the better results". While this can be true in some circumstances it will not always be so depending on the search term, type of results required and the value of the items returned.
When searching for a particular restaurant I might be looking for a menu, prices, opening times and a phone number to book a reservation but personalised search could, instead, return a post from a friend saying that he had a good time and the steak was to die for - admittedly handy to know but not what I am after.
If I wanted to search for Dave Winer I would get no value from being shown his Google+ profile as he doesn't use Plus and never has yet is still presented to me as a suggested user.
Examples such as these are why I say that personalised results should enhance search results and not replace them. Yes, tell me that my friend had a good time and recommends the steak but not at the expense of the restaurant listing itself - his post should come as a sub-item of the restaurant listing and serve to boost its position in the rankings.
Social search should make things easier to find and then present the related stories and opinions of our contacts. If you think of the way Techmeme presents a lead and then all related discussion you get an idea of how I feel social search should operate. Public posts on G+ are considered pages for search results but, when searching outside of the social network, are they actually more relevant than the item to which they relate?
The world according to Google
Jon ponders that the "best solution to social search would be one that lets the search user decide what network(s) to prefer. To the extent that a social search engine doesn't prefer the user's own networks, it's not social search; it's just search."
We are again caught in the semantics of "our world". We are often social on more than one network so, while Google doesn't need to know our relationships with others, perhaps it could take a cue from the accounts linked to our Plus profile; if I haven't listed any other services on my profile then maybe it is reasonable to only return profiles and pages from G+ but if I have explicitly indicated my presence on Twitter or Facebook then should search not take this in to consideration and return results from these locations?
We are entering into new territory where G+ is not just a social network, it is instead a core component of the Google ecosystem and will link in to all services causing the edges to blur. This creates a dichotomy of Google the search engine and Google the service provider and some believe it cannot adequately, or fairly, be both simultaneously.
It is easy to see why Search Plus is so closely linked to Plus and why Google would want to do this. It is also easy to see why Google would argue that they do not have access to content within other networks but, as I have said before, this is not needed to present meaningful results due to public data that Google has indexed along with the related accounts we place in our profiles.
In fact, the demo at focusontheuser.org is achieved only with information "from Google itself, and all of the ranking decisions are made by Google's own algorithms. No other services or APIs are accessed". If it is this easy, why couldn't or didn't google do it? The answer is that Google is keen to promote its own network and we now have a conflict of interest between the two sides of the company's operations.
Changing the social graph
Google is deprecating the social graph API so, perhaps, would argue that relationships garnered by these means are no longer relevant and is instead reliant on our G+ profiles to establish these relationships - we add linked profiles, accounts and sites but these do not appear to be prioritised.
Google is now in competition with the likes of Facebook so is keen to promote Plus at every opportunity and in doing so is, out of necessity, prioritising its users. Jon says: "But Google and its fans have two other use cases to consider. People who would rather have their personal website, Twitter or Facebook profile appear above Google+ are not well-served by Google anymore, nor are people whose social graphs exist on networks other than Google+ ... Google has no obligation to these users."
This would be true if Google were just a service provider a la Facebook but not while it is still positioning itself as the premier search engine returning, according to its original promise, unbiased results to search queries. Google obviously has an obligation to all its users but the question is: does being a Google+ user change the nature of that obligation? Just because we have a G+ account does it imply that we are better served by our "Google world"?
Ask your friends, not the web
Google has increased the integration with search by adding the option to "ask your friends" on Google+ - personally, I think this is great approach to social search: crowd-sourcing a solution if you can't find what you're looking for in the normal results. The cynic in me, however, wonders if this is a deliberate ploy: users complain that social search results don't always give us what we're after so are we now inclined to ask our Circles and, thus, do Google a favour by further populating its social network with more signal?
When prompted to ask a question in this manner we will format our query as a proper question. We will then receive answers from our Circles by way of comments which may receive +1s and, as such, create an answer rating system - the most +1s equating to the best answer.
It has long been speculated that Google would introduce a competitor to Quora - Matt Mastracci even discovered "Google Experts" within the Plus source code - and this integration is another potential example of how Google could look after its own and influence search results by having ready-made answers within the social network instead of having to resort to the normal web.
I stated that Google needed to become a destination rather than a stepping stone in order to succeed in social Google+ has very much become that destination but is its integration into the core of Google's business taking this too far and risking just as must as it promises?