When Search and Social Collide

First published March 12, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I feel the ground shifting under my feet. And I’m not the only one. John Battelle voiced his perception of shift in a post  this weekend:

Search, and Google in particular, was the first true language of the Web. But I’ve often called it a toddler’s language – intentional, but not fully voiced. This past few weeks folks are noticing an important trend – the share of traffic referred to their sites is shifting. Facebook (and for some, like this site, Twitter) is becoming a primary source of traffic.

Why? Well, two big reasons. One, Facebook has metastasized to a size that rivals Google. And two, Facebook Connect has come into its own. People are sharing what they are reading, where they are going, and what they are doing, and the amplification of all that social intention is spreading across the web.

Talking the Talk

I find Battelle’s analogy of language particularly apt here. I’m a big Steven Pinker fan and am fascinated by the way we process language. It maps well to our use of search.

There are two bursts of language development that correspond to the two biggest periods of brain development. The first, during the first few years of our lives, are when we assimilate the rudimentary rules of our mother tongue. We move from single words to small sentences. We use our new channel of expression to begin to connect with our physical environment, telling others our basic needs (hunger, diaper changes) and asking why things are. At the earliest stages, we explore through language.

The next is during adolescence. Now, we use language to connect with others. We fine-tune empathy, create relationships and probe the fit and fiber of those relationships through words.  We mirror others’ emotions in our own minds, and language is an essential part of that process.

As Battelle says, our use of Google equates to our first explorations of our online world. Our queries are quick and primitive stabs in the dark, hoping to find something of interest. But now, we’re become online adolescents. We’re connecting and conversing, and in that, there is a new and indexable Web or words  that becomes very interesting.

Humans being Human

Online becomes fundamentally important when we use it to do the things that come naturally for us. Seeking information is natural, and search gave us a new and more effective way to do it. Connecting with others is natural, and Facebook and Twitter give us a new way to do that as well.  This isn’t about technology. This is about being human. Technology should be transparent in the process.

But when those fundamental activities leave lingering digital footprints that are quickly converging, there is something staggering in the implications. The ability to create feedback loops between patterns that emerge in the complexity of online, and then use that ability to navigate and connect to places and people, foretells the future of the Web. Twitter and Facebook are not replacements for Google. They are social signals that potentially increase the effectiveness of our online language exponentially.  To quote Battelle again:

The conversation is evolving, from short bursts of declared intent inside a query bar, to ongoing, ambient declaration of social actions.

Consider the implications: Google’s mission to index and organize all the world’s information; the increasing use of personalization to uncover your conscious and subconscious intent; and, the ability to tap into the very vibrations of a vast social network. It will take time to bring it together, but when it does, it will change everything.

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