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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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.