How social search is changing the search industry

The recently rolled out Google+ is Google’s latest effort to get a handle on something that so far has eluded the company: namely, gaining access to the data users generate when they post status updates, share photos and comment on friends’ activities. More and more, these social “signals” are becoming a crucial part of how people behave online, and if Google wants to remain on top, it needs to re-evaluate its business strategy and find a way to integrate these features into its search business.

As I describe in a new research report for GigaOM Pro (subscription required), that means other companies that depend on Google for their livelihood — as almost everyone does to some extent — must also change the way that they think about search, in order to take advantage of its increasingly social nature.

Google’s failed attempts at social features are fairly well documented: Orkut was the first — and, until Google+ came along, arguably the most successful — attempt to bolt a social element onto the company’s business. Then came Google Wave, Google Buzz and a number of social tweaks and add-ons for services such as Google News, none of which achieved much success for a variety of reasons (Wave was too complicated and Buzz turned people off because of the way it handled privacy.)

As we’ve explained at GigaOM a number of times, the driving force behind these efforts is not a desire on Google’s part to mimic Facebook or provide a nice place for people to chat about photos of their pets. The main impetus is to extract information from the social activity that occurs on such networks, and to use that information to make better decisions about search results and other targeted services.

Doug Edwards, who was employee number 59 at Google, and involved in the development of Gmail and other major initiatives, described the company’s motivation for its social efforts in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal:

[I]t’s not because they enjoy warm and fuzzy social interaction and they think oh, this would be a really wonderful way to bring our friends together and build a social circle. They look at it and say, “the information created in social networks is extremely important and valuable. If we don’t have access to that information, Google will be less valuable as an information source.”

The key point is that social “signals” — Likes, retweets, etc. — are becoming a much more powerful force in determining user behavior online. In a world where many people devote large amounts of their attention to Facebook, Twitter and other services, the movements —- including shopping-related activity —- of Internet users are being influenced more and more by the recommendations and social signals of their friends.

Google has to figure out how to capitalize on those kinds of signals, in order to maintain its dominant position between Internet users and the information they want. And as the search giant and the rest of the web move toward social signals rather than raw page links, this shift to social search is going to have some profound effects on the search-engine optimization (SEO) industry and the way that companies use these tools to connect to their customers.

The bottom line is that companies of all kinds will have to be more aware of —- and actively involved in -— social networks, so that they can become part of the social signals that Google is indexing. For more on the impact that social behavior is having on search, and some advice on how to take advantage of it, please read the full report.

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