Social Search is Good for Business

When I tell people—VCs included—that we made a social search tool for Twitter, I get a lot of head scratching. People say, “Sounds interesting, but I don’t do a lot of social search.” Hey, I get it. It’s true for just about everyone. The newness of social search—and the lack of clarity around search paradigms—has muddied our sense of what it is, and its potential.

My bet is that we’re going to do a lot more of it soon.

If I do my job, by the time we reach the bottom of this post, social search will have a place at the table with the interest graph and purchase intent, distant though they may now appear.

There is no fold

Before we rush to the end, let’s pause for a minute and take a look at the fold. As I’m sure you know, the fold comes from newspaper design, and its definition is literally what it implies—it’s where the newspaper is folded before it gets stacked on the rack at the local bodega. It’s important because what’s above the fold sells newspapers much like what’s on a cover sells magazines. It’s also a place for expensive ads.

A look at the fold:

Figure 1. At a screen resolution of 1024 x 768, the bottom of the browser—otherwise known as the fold—divides the home page of the New York Times

For as long as the Web is old, the fold has confounded Web site designers. Talk to any who’ve been around awhile and they’ll roll their eyes and then launch into stories about clients or bosses who lived and died by the fold and who forced unsatisfying or truly awful design compromises to account for the fold.

Fear drove this insanity. A fear that users would never scroll and therefore never see this content below the fold. This content—these About Us links and photos and ads, etc— would not be findable, invisible and all-but-worthless.

The good news as it relates to Web design is that the mania surrounding the fold has abated of late. While it’s safe to say that things at the top of the page are still what’s most important (ie, emphasized), the scrollbar is no longer a thing to fear; it has evolved into a feature todesign for. So we’ve made progress in regard to Web design; but we users still consider the fold as a meaningful divide in our social streams, as if it separates good from bad. More relevant from less relevant.

Like these social streams are newspapers.

We carry this notion around with us because Facebook and Twitter have borrowed from the design of the news. They also happen to have made what’s come before all-but-impossible to recall. As if now matters most, and everything before now is gone. Invisible.

Irrelevant.

Like this:

Figure 2. A look at how the fold divides the stream of Tweets on Twitter.com

 

But here’s the thing. That’s crazy. It’s not like the stuff below the fold on my timeline has been put there by some world-class curator or editor, who’s digested everything and then determined based on business and/or user needs what should be above it or below it.

 

My timeline isn’t The New York Times.

 

There’s no digest. No edition. There’s no top, and no bottom. No first page. There’s no fold. There is only flow.

 

Attentive though I am and good though my memory is, most of this stuff lies not recalled, valuable though much of it is to me. Which is a shame, because a lot of this stuff matters to me. These bits are the things I want to know and use as I move forward in life and at work.

 

These countless bits I missed and would want to recall.

Figure 3. The best bits below the fold in my Twitter stream are no less valuable than what’s above it

Social search should bring this valuable stuff back from below the fold. It should connect us to the things we knew and know and want to know—these things that we have shared and have been shared with us. These things from the back of our minds.

E.g., Foursquare Explore

Lest this seem all-too-theoretical, take a look at what Foursquare has just done with their so-called Explore feature. If you haven’t been back to Foursquare in a while, now may be the time. No longer is just a place to check-in; it’s now a place to search and discover what’s good nearby.

Here’s a look at the desktop version. Nice, isn’t it?

Figure 4. A screenshot of Foursquare’s Explore social search results, of a search for Food near North Cambridge that my friends have been to.

This is social search, pulling valuable content from below the fold and putting it to work. In this case, to find a place to eat, and buy some food.

Our streams. None of us can keep up with them. And not even the brightest among us can remember everything we see, valuable as those things may be. Social search means that I don’t have to miss the best, most useful stuff just because I was sleeping. Or in a meeting. Just doing something else.

A better memory. Doesn’t it seem like it would be good for each and every one of us? And if it’s good for each and every one of us, it’s bound to be good for business.

What do you think?

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Google search != social search != social listening

If you’re reading my blog, I’m assuming you’re a nerd and so that headline makes sense. If you’re not a nerd, welcome. Here’s what it means: Google search is not the same as social search, which is not the same as social listening.

Venn time!

Given all the hubbub about Google’s most recent foray into social search (by way of their handling of Google+ posts in their search results), it seems like the time is right to take a step back and think for a minute about what kind of stuff we as users should expect when we use a search engine like Google, and whether or not there should be one search engine for all of the stuff on the Web.

The answer is no. That’s the bet I’ve made.

Before I go into definitions, let me digress for just a moment to qualify this post and put it in it’s right place: this post is not about privacy or anti-trust. I understand these issues are central to the conversation about Google’s recent search update, but being a product person who thinks hard about missions, visions & value propositions and how products either do or do not embody them, I’m going to focus this post instead on that and offer you, dear reader, more qualified voices for information about those other very important concerns.

Now, onto search paradigms…

Let’s pull up a handy 2 x 2.

On the y-axis we have scope, which is a reflection of the search engine’s proximity to me; it’s me vs the world.

On the x-axis we have inventory, or the nature of the content that the search engine indexes and returns. Relative to inventory, this 2×2 compares information and memories.

Now, back to our story.

Google search is… well, here’s their mission in their own words: Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Let’s plot Google search on the 2×2.

You can see why they ended up in the bottom left of my 2×2: their scope is the world (not my world) and their inventory is information (not memories).

Now, to alot of folks—most of us—Google is search. Search is Google. And so, with that attitude, these other 3 quadrants don’t exist at all.

Let’s pause here for a second. Of course there’s more to search than Google. (And forget for a second Google’s main Web search competition—sorry, Bing—or admirable upstarts like DuckDuckGo; this isn’t about which product that’s trying to make sense of the world’s information is the best one. For simplicity’s sake, I hope you can go along with me with Google as the standard-bearer in this category.) Consider Amazon and Kayak. Both are search engines. Amazon is the world’s SKUs (including products outside their own inventory). Kayak is the world’s available airplane seats (and other travel-related services). I hope with that quick digression we are agreed that there’s more to search than Google.

Now back to our 2×2 and on to social listening.

Social listening

Social listening is often mistaken for social search. Topsy and Twitter’s search engine (and for you brand marketers out there, radian6, Traackr and others) are examples of social listening services.

Let’s plot social listening services like Topsy on the 2×2, down where the world meets memories.

Customer service reps, brand/community managers and journalists all use social listening services (and so do you and I when we use Topsy or Twitter search.) In the case of customer service types, they use these services to react and respond quickly to issues, complaints and praise when they appear online. Community managers listen in order to find and then engage like-minded consumers and influencers; folks who by virtue of their participation in online conversation with a brand can fuel a community of advocates. And journalists use them in order to keep up with the real-time Web, and even cite in their own work what everyday people (like you and me) are saying about what’s happening in the world. An increasingly important enterprise.

The inventory in this space isn’t information; it’s the world’s collective short-term (and most commonly real-time) memory.

Social search

With social search, which I am hoping to define here, the scope is me (or, my world), and the inventory is my memory—my memory of the things that have been shared with me and by me.

Our product, PostPost, fits into this category. (There are others, too, I think…) Different than Google and Topsy, products like these return content that’s been shared by me and the people I follow. Given the nature of social media, it’s impossible to keep up with all of it as it comes. But if you’re someone who follows others carefully in order to know what they know products like these are for you (while social listening products are not, b/c they return different stuff that is not that).

Social search. It’s my memory. The things I know and would like to recall.

Now that we’ve got these definitions squared away, you can see how Google search would be at odds with itself to try and be both the world’s information and my memory. These things are more than just plotted points on a graph; they are the difference between an objective and a subjective point of view, one that the product must adopt and reflect.

The very real issues of privacy and anti-trust are certainly a part of the backlash here, and for good reason. But there’s something else going on. It seems to me that part of what is causing the reaction to Google’s new offering is that Google has couched this update as a new feature, added to the product we’ve used all along, when in fact it is actually a major pivot toward a new product, one that offers not just an objective view into the world’s information but also a view into something far more personal: my memories.

Hey, who am I? But to me, it’s bad design to try to do both. The product will betray itself. And it’s creepy.

- – - – -

Aside: I do think that it’s reasonable for Google to move into the top left of the 2×2, where it can make me and information about me more findable. Many people, to my astonishment in countless user tests, have proven that Google is where they start just about everything online. They don’t go to citizensbank.com to bank, they go to Google, search for Citizens Bank, click a link and get into the banking business. And in this way, I think Google can play a role, to help people find the actual me.

If you have any comments, I’d love to hear them. Here, or on Twitter.

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Google has entered The Uncanny Valley

Google’s latest developments in search have been all-the-buzz in my corner of the world these last 24 hours. If you missed it, here’s how Google describes it:

“With personal results, you’ll see relevant tips, photos, and posts from your friends right alongside results from the web.”

And as is often the case, there are people who like it, and there are people who don’t. On the pro side there are who think it’s OK to emphasize Google+ in search results, so long as they make that optional for the user. On the con side, there are those who think Google is mis-behaving, acting too much in their own self-interest by over-emphasizing posts that live in their own social network, Google+.

As for me, I understand why Google is emphasizing Google+ posts, but I understand that in some cases that’s not OK; and I do believe that allowing users to choose the context of their search—the world, or “me”—is an improvement to the interwoven version that had people up in arms last week.

But all this just feels like noise when I take a step back and think about Google and the paradigm in which it operates.

Would I ever want Google to help me recapture my memories?

Is Google about me? 

I thought Google was about organizing and making useful and accessible the world’s information. I probably think that because that’s what Google says Google’s about.

Social search

Social search, to me, is about a collective memory that I share with people who by some measure are close to me. Not the world, but my world.

To call making sense of the world’s information a huge task is almost laughably out-of-scale with the reality of the situation. Let’s be honest. It’s unimaginably enormous. It’s… inhuman.

With this development, Google has taken a step to make itself seem smaller. More provincial. It’s starting to look more like… me. Like my friends. It’s of a more human scale.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I want. I like it as a uniquely useful, reliable and inhuman tool. An algorithm that runs inside whirring computers jammed into dark and refrigerated rooms, with myriad lights blinking out a story that only it understands. Only something like that can make sense of the world’s information. Something like that can make my life better without being my friend.

The Uncanny Valley. When inhuman things look too much like us, but not quite enough, it makes us uncomfortable. With this update, I’m starting to get that creeping feeling.

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My hope for #newNewTwitter

Twitter seems simple to most. As in, it’s just 140 characters, stupid. But anyone who’s tried to explain Twitter knows that behind that simple notion is a very complicated value proposition.

The early days of Twitter were marred by skeptics who said it was about what anyone had for lunch. Those of us who had hung around long enough by that point knew that Twitter was much more than that; therein lay the trouble. You had to hang around long enough. You had to be patient. You had to Tweet into the void for awhile, and suffer through reading a noisy timeline filled with stuff from people you really didn’t really care to hear from. You had to learn to follow people more carefully. You had to learn to unfollow.

You had to learn to use it. Over time.

With this redesign, it’s clear they are trying to simplify Twitter further, so that it can describe itself and its value to users new and old while they’re using it.

Valuable content from valuable voices, easier to see.

I haven’t used the #newnewTwitter, but I hope they haven’t oversimplified for the LCD, and in so doing disenfranchised those of us who love Twitter the way it is.

I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because they are very good.

The Twitter is dead. Long live The Twitter!

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Twitter litter

twitter-bradnoble.pngAnyone who has a Twitter account knows that twittering into the void gets old fast. And by twittering into the void, I mean, twittering without anyone responding. It’s somewhere in between having an IM conversation with yourself and having a blog with no readers. (I had 83 page views yesterday. WOO HOO!) To my friends who have Twitter accounts, who are following me, and whom I follow, let us each muster up the requisite watt of brainpower and feed this thing with our twitter litter, lest we leave the content of this stretch of the Albert Arnold Gore Jr. Information Superhighway to other travelers, who are offloading less interesting trash.

Friends! Deal with my twitter litter, and I’ll deal with yours!

cmadden, mxmaione and petetschudy: you have iPhones. You have no excuse.

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Modernista! reinvents the online agency brochure

Modernista redesignI’ve been impressed by agency web sites before, but never have I been truly inspired by one … until now. Modernista! has opened its kimono, as it were, by cobbling together the so-called web 2.0 web sites that could feature their work — flickr, youtube, del.icio.us — and news about them — google.com/news — and including them under a persistent and minimal Modernista! banner.

Why am I inspired?

  • They didn’t make just another agency web site (JAAWS?)
  • They incorporate news from a news source that could easily include unsavory news about M!
  • As an agency, this site demonstrates a command of not only “web design” or “web technology” but more importantly the internet as a medium
  • They found a way to take powerful and proven tools and make them their own, instead of “rolling their own” and missing the mark

Is this web site perfect?

No, I don’t think so. It could be improved … but only in noodgy, executional details.

As an idea, it should constitute a mark in time.

I’m sure this design will provoke advertising executives everywhere to rethink their “strategies” for their own sites: thinking anew about “transparency” and the savings in time and money that “leveraging existing frameworks” can provide. Soon, a brochure that pulls feeds from the 2.0 sites above instead of bringing those entire sites in will emerge, and so on, and so on …

Thanks to mxmaione for the link.

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