The Social Fabric of Search

First published February 1, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

You know the phenomena of Synchronicity, where once you become aware of something it seems like everyone is talking about the same thing? You can’t turn a corner without seeing some reference to something that just a week ago didn’t even register on your social consciousness. For me that was social search and the time was last week. While I was certainly aware of social search before that, for some reason, last week was the week where the knocking got so loud I had to pay more attention.

In looking at the referrer logs for my blog I noticed that Stumbleupon seemed to have emerged as a major traffic source. Also last week, I was on a panel with Danny Sullivan and he mentioned that we have to start watching social engines like Digg and Stumbleupon as emerging trends in the search space. Finally I did an interview with Larry Cornett, one of the key usability people at Yahoo, and when I asked him what the differentiating factor was for Yahoo in the future, he pointed to the emergence of social search and gave me Yahoo! Answers as the current example of that in practice.

There seems to be a lot of buzz around social search but exactly how is social search shaping our search experience and why we should be looking at it in the future? When Danny Sullivan mentioned that social search is something to keep your eye on, I made the point that different types of search engines lead themselves to different types of search activity.

Serendipitous Search

What I noticed Stumbleupon show up in my referrer report, I did some investigation into what Stumbleupon is about. Stumbleupon is the embodiment of serendipitous search. Its whole purpose is to help you find new sites that you might think are interesting. And here’s where the aspect of social search, or community, comes in. Stumbleupon depends on a network of like-minded people to earmark sites that would be of interest based on your profile. It’s based on the concept that great minds think alike. Apparently, someone in the online universe had pegged my blog as one that might be of interest in some particular niche and suddenly dozens of other people were stumbling upon it, guided by their online friends.

Stumbleupon is probably the best example of serendipitous search but Digg is another one, albeit with a slightly different flavor. While Stumbleupon helps you find sites, Digg connects you directly to new content about specific topics. Like Stumbleupon, Digg uses a rating system to allow community members to vote on whether a site or story is noteworthy. Both Stumbleupon and Digg have emerged as significant drivers of traffic in recent months so as marketers, we have to keep these sites on our radar.

From the user’s perspective, the aspect of social search becomes interesting in these two examples because they help guide us to explore undiscovered territory online. We’re going where we haven’t been before and it helps us when people who share our interests can guide the way. In each case, social search lends credibility to new sites with which we have no previous experience.

The Wisdom of Crowds

James Surowiecki wrote a book called the Wisdom of Crowds. The basic premise of the book is that crowds, given the right conditions, can be amazingly intelligent. He cites a number of examples where a large group of people, acting independently with limited amounts of information, collectively came to decisions that were more valid than those of all but the very smartest individuals within the group. The whole became greater than the sum of its parts.

This is the basis of a new flavor of social search where the community collectively builds the index of the search engine. Consider Yahoo! Answers. You pose the question and Yahoo’s community kicks into gear to provide the answers. These answers are aggregated and provide searchable content that make up Yahoo! Answers. Based on my conversation with Larry Cornett and recent comments by Yahoo CEO Terry Semel, it appears that Yahoo Answers provides a clue into their strategy for going head to head with Microsoft and Google. This concept of community building a better search experience is key to Yahoo and a main strategic platform for the future.

Another example of this variation of social search can be found in Search Wikia, the new search initiative that “is going to change everything” according to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. In Search Wikia, it’s a case where the broad concept seems to be in place but the specifics on how it’s going to be executed still seem a little thin.

The biggest challenge with this variation of social search is that it depends on the engagement of individual members of the community. Unless you have volunteers that are willing to spend their time enhancing the search experience, the scalability of the project breaks down. Anything that depends on people to take time to tag results, to contribute or to answer questions is dependent on the person’s motivation to participate. While that’s present in a very small percentage of our population, it’s not a commonly found trait in most of us. It’s generally been proven that hardware is rapidly scalable, people are not.

However you define social search, the fact remains that the combination of search and the very notion of an online community are inherently aligned. Communities are all about connections, and nothing can connect faster than online search. It will take us a while to smooth out the wrinkles, but search is fundamentally social and communities are fundamentally connected. These concepts will live together in the online world.

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