Is It Time for Social Search?

The United States of America was created well over 200 years ago to achieve a new level of democracy in the world. This country was based on a representational system of governance, ruled by voting, and run by its citizens. This was at a time when many of the great powers of the Western world, France and England in particular, were still monarchies.

The framers of the Constitution and the country never promised a perfect union, though. They promised the (linguistically awkward) “more perfect union.” They recognized that they had flaws, the number one being that not all the people who resided within the bounds of this fledgling country would get the right to actually vote in this representational democracy.

Clearly, there were the problems of minorities and women who wouldn’t get the right to vote until they fought for it, desperately and bravely. But at the launch of the country, you couldn’t vote unless you owned land.

I was reminded of this bit of history when I spent a fantastic day at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose. This show gets better every year, broadening its content and its mandate as one of the key gatherings of thinkers on search and interactive advertising.

But what struck me was the nature of search. We’ve long become trained by Google’s PageRank.

When Google was launched in the late 1990s, it devised an extraordinarily clever way to observe the World Wide Web. Google looked at every page — or at least the pages that were available to its crawlers and not hidden behind a password or deep within an application — and how they were linked. That is, if Joe’s page about ice cream linked to Fred’s page about candy and 13 other pages also linked to Fred’s page about candy, then Fred’s page about candy must be relevant for searches on the word “candy.” A link to a page was considered a vote.

Only people who set up Web sites had the right to link. Somehow, that doesn’t seem quite fair. More important, that doesn’t seem quite accurate.

Of Course: Anyone Can Set Up a Web Site

Now there’s no cost to own a Web site. You can set up a site on Blogger and publish in a space and format that the search engines love.

But this introduced another problem, which is PageRank’s inherent flaw. As soon as word got out that pages were ranked based on votes, links became the currency of the realm. As Google became more successful and more engines followed its lead of treating links as votes, PageRank became the Web’s defining characteristic. Link spam is probably a bigger problem than e-mail spam.

Where will we go from here? The idea of votes on pages being recorded and leveraged is a good one. But maybe it’s time to visit an idea that’s been brewing for several years: social search. Where links aren’t votes. Votes are votes.

Finding the Real Experts

My friend Cory is an expert on the types of trees that do well in this foggy and cold city I live in. However, if you do a Google search for “best trees for San Francisco,” you won’t get any of her opinions as results. Nor will you get any of the sites she visits as results, because she doesn’t have a Web site or blog and doesn’t contribute to any forums. Assumedly, there are other people out there whose work shows up in that list of results who aren’t nearly as expert on the subject as she is. But they have a site.

So we’re in a situation where, if you’re online, you can be viewed as an expert. Even though Cory isn’t contributing, she’s still consuming. And even if she doesn’t put up a link on her blog, she may have found the best article on the subject. Under the owners-of-sites model, that knowledge is lost.

Under the everyone-gets-to-vote model, that knowledge could be captured. Right now, you can do a search on delicious to get a taste of what’s possible. Here, people who may not even have an e-mail address, but who have expertise, can help craft the most relevant result for a particular search. Services like Reddit are even better, because they allow people to vote content up and down. Yahoo has moved into this arena as well, and Google has dipped its toe.

Go Social, Search

All of this is critical for two big reasons. First, search will get bigger in the next year. The last big influx of money into search neatly coincided with the last significant economic downturn. Search is a good place to retreat to when you need to know where your dollars are going.

Second, the most potentially valuable sites are built around getting groups of people interconnected. Naturally, I’m talking about Facebook and MySpace. And I say “potentially” because neither of these sites has done anything to live up to its potential for generating profit (plus, Facebook seems to have a strategic commitment to shooting itself in the foot with advertising schemes every few months or so).

Those two threads represent a great opportunity for social search to take off in a significant way in the balance of 2008.

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