At least a couple times a week we get tipped about Google testing a new “social search” feature. The truth is that the “social circle” results that everyone is pointing to have been in place since 2009. But Google clearly didn’t think too much of them and shoved them all the way down at the bottom of the results page. I’m not sure I’ve ever clicked on a link served up there. But this social aspect is about to get a lot more interesting starting today.
What Google is sort of downplaying as just an “update” to social search, is actually much more. Google is taking those social circle links at the bottom of the page, pumping them with social steroids, and shoving them towards the top of results pages. For the first time, social is actually going to affect Google Search in a meaningful way.
We had a chance to speak with Mike Cassidy, Google’s Product Management Director of Search, about the updates yesterday. He outlined three key things Google is focusing on: blending the results, increasing the social coverage, and giving users more control. The first two are the meat, and the third is simply overdue.
By “blending” results, Cassidy means that Google is now going to be showing social results in the regular search results stream. The link itself will look the same as every other link — blue, underlined — but it will say something like “YOUR FRIEND’S NAME shared this” below it, along with that user’s profile icon.
So is Google using social signals to alter the actual results? Yes and no. In some cases they are, in some cases they’re not, Cassidy says. He declined to get into specifics, noting that it was a part of their special sauce. But he did say that there are several things that the algorithm now takes into account from a social perspective on top of all the other more traditional signals.
Along those lines, one of the things Cassidy would not confirm but said would make sense is that Google will look at how many of your friends share a certain link. And the keyword there is “share”, previously Google’s social circle mainly highlighted content your friends actually created, like blog posts. But now a key to the social layer are the links they actually share.
“There’s a lot more sharing than creating going on on the web,” Cassidy says. In fact, he said that something like 100 million times a day people are sharing links that Google sees (remember that Google has a deal with Twitter for full access to their firehose).
And it’s not just tweets that Google is taking into account for this new social push. Flickr and Quora content is included as well. The latter is somewhat surprising because the startup is relatively new. But it makes perfect sense, and obviously, we love the move. There’s going to be some excellent data coming in from there.
Cassidy says other services will be added into the system on a rolling basis in short order.
Google is also now making it easier to manage the services you have hooked into your own social circle. Based on your name, they’ll scan some of the popular services like Twitter for what they think may be your account and ask you if you wish to add it. And there’s now a way to remove any connection from your public Google Profile with one click. The key is that this will simply hide the link to your profile, but the connection will still work for your social results.
When I asked about the “F” word — Facebook — Cassidy became a bit more cryptic. “We’re focused on sites where it’s relatively easy to crawl for data,” he noted and didn’t elaborate. But that is the key to a lot of this content — it’s all public. And Google is getting the majority of it by simply crawling it. “We’re interested in including any publicly available content,” Cassidy did say.
And, before Scoble undoubtedly breaks the system tomorrow, it should be noted that there are some limits in place for the social graph. As in, if you have 25,000 “friends”, Google may not count them all for these results. But Cassidy says he hopes the team will be able lift any sort of limit soon.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about spam infesting Google. This seems like a great, natural way to cut through much of it. I’m betting I’ll be more more likely to click on results that have been “validated” by my friends by way of them sharing that link.
Interestingly enough, Google’s full push into this arena comes just a day after Greplin, a startup in the social search space that we like a lot, finally opened its doors to all.
Greplin has many more social hooks than Google right now (they ask you to authorize third-party services whereas Google, again, is just going after public data), but the search giant promises that today’s rollout is just one step in the move towards social. There is more to come.