Them, not that or there: Bing and the social search engine
Let’s speak cryptically, because the mood today calls for it: the search engine as self has always been a middle man (or woman), pointing us toward wikipedia, yelp, or wherever else we want to go online but don’t actually know it yet.
But what if instead of sending us out there, it told us who knew what — who, among my friends and acquaintances, can give me suggestions on where the best hikes are in upstate New York, and help me avoid those old looking state park sites that don’t tell me anything? Well, Bing to the rescue.
"We’re literally no longer indexing text,” [Bing director Stefan] Weitz says. "We’re trying to associate data that exists on the web in all forms with the physical object that spawned it in the first place.”
That means that when searching for upstate hiking trails, you’ll be shown who among your friends may have been somewhere up there, during a Summer trip five years ago that they never mentioned but maybe, conveniently, made into a photo album on Facebook that you never saw.
Bing isn’t taking all user-generated content into consideration when it makes its people-relevance decisions. That’s because it would take an extraordinary amount of computing power to analyze all the free text people generate and determine its meaning (for example, if you write about “turkey,” are you talking about the bird or the country?).
So instead, Bing is simply looking at what your friends Like, share, or search for to assess their expertise on certain topics. But those proxies might not be sufficient to actually get you to the right people. “Just because there’s someone in my social graph who Likes Hawaii doesn’t mean they’re the best person to recommend a hotel on Kauai,” Rebecca Lieb of the Altimeter Group tells Fast Company.
FJP: One oversight on Bing’s part may be the fact that I don’t want to ask that one guy I haven’t seen in three years what the Adirondacks are like. But it’s still a good idea.
The big problem, as critics pointed out, was that social meant Google+ posts from your circles of friends and acquaintances. This diminished the integrity of search results as posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks that might be much more relevant to the original query were ignored.
Google’s response was that Twitter and Facebook don’t give the search engine access to their data so they moved forward with what they could do, namely include Google+ results.
But last weekend developers from Facebook, Twitter and Myspace got together for a hackathon to demonstrate that Google’s excuse is just that, an excuse that isn’t really true. In doing so, they created a site called Focus on the User that includes bookmarklets for Safari, Chrome and Firefox that expands Google search to include other social networks.
The video above gives background to all this and shows how its done.
Over the weekend, Blake Ross, Facebook’s product director and co-founder of Firefox, worked with Facebook engineers Tom Occhino and Marshall Roch to demonstrate how evil Google’s newly launched Search plus Your World (SPYW) feature really is, and created a “proof of concept” showing how it should really work. His team got some help from Twitter engineers, Myspace engineers, and consulted other social networks as well to really make sure the message hits home: SPYW should surface results from all social networks, not just Google+.
By leveraging Google’s own algorithms, the group built a bookmarklet called “don’t be evil” (a jab at Google’s informal motto) and released it on a new website named Focus on the User…
…So, how does it work? If Google’s search engine decides that it’s relevant to surface a Google+ page in response to a query where Google+ content is hardcoded, the tool searches Google for the name of the Google+ page and identifies the social profiles within the first ten pages of Google’s search results (top 100 results). The ones Google ranks highest, regardless of what social network they are from, replace the previous results that would only be from Google+.
To be clear: the tool not only reorders the search engine results, but also the results of the promotional Google+ boxes on the right side of the results, as well as the autocomplete results that feature Google+ accounts when you type into the search box. In Google language these three are known as: People & Pages results, Google+ Sitelinks, and Google+ Suggestions In Autocomplete.
Focus on the User can be found here. The “Don’t be Evil” Bookmarklet is available on the site’s home page.