After experimenting with social results for months – sometimes with less than perfect results, the integration of Google+ into Google’s search results became official earlier this month. The reactions have been understandably strong and varied; for some it’s breach on the integrity of Google Search and as such is breaking the implicit promise to users that search will always be unbiased; and of course, there is the feeling that you are forced into using Google+, otherwise you will find yourself devalued in the search results. Competitors in the social game, especially Twitter, have also complained, seeing the move as anticompetitive, unfairly promoting Google+ in detriment of more established networks.
Personally, I find the integration welcomed, as long as it doesn’t stop at Google’s own content about you and your connections. There certainly are search queries where results from your social circles would be more useful, while for many others the classic results are more relevant. The problem is Google+ is the only source of social content; that may be nice and sound for their enthusiasts, but for the majority of users, who prefer Twitter of Facebook or just search anonymously, the update will not improve the relevancy of search results in the slightest. Fortunately, turning the (so-called) ‘personal’ results off is quite easy. As far as I can tell, the setting is also preserved across browsers, so it’s tied to your Google account, not stored in a local cookie.
Just got Search+ My World. It only took one query for me to disable it in preferences.— Jon Mitchell (@JonMwords) January 16, 2012
As a side note, regardless of the statements coming from Google, the general interest in Google+ is pretty low, with a couple of peaks around the key dates of major announcements, but otherwise falling – as you can see in this analysis on Search Engine Land. Given the strained relationship with Twitter and Facebook – which is likely to only get worse after unilateral moves like this one – it’s rather unlikely we will see results from these major social networks in Google Search anytime soon. To me, it’s pretty clear that Google is following their own agenda, like it’s been doing since before stripping down Google Reader.
This integration can prove to be a boost for Google+, but not necessarily in the way others expect. I haven’t found much use for this new network or ‘layer’ until now, but having it tied to search can surface it’s best aspects. Instead of actively visiting Google+ and skimming through a noisy stream, you can find interesting content in the search results. In this way, Google+ acts almost like an interest network: you circle the people active in the fields you are interested in and the search engine takes care of filtering out non-relevant and personal posts to deliver you interesting content based on your current query. A potentially useful layer, but an imperfect one nonetheless: it requires you to rebuild your social or interest network inside Google and that the people you circle keep updating it regularly. Clearly, it’s usefulness is limited by the amount of content it can reach and here again we come across the self-imposed limitations of Google+: no API to import activity from other services and no deal to index other relevant online places…
About a year ago I wrote an article about the rumored Google Me at that time and the features I wanted to see and believed it would make it a compelling service for users. Search was naturally a big component and something Google was the most likely to get right. The way I see it now, much of the problems with search and retrieving old content are still not solved. Facebook is attacking the problem with an unique perspective by building the Timeline and attaching all user actions to it; Twitter search is as useless as before – maybe a reason why Twitter was more vocal about this development from Google than Facebook: they feel their position is threatened and they still don’t have a valid or timely solution. The fact is, both Twitter and Google would have been better off signing an agreement over access to real-time tweets; while Google complained the price was too high, I don’t see how building a social network from scratch and then rewriting all other apps to integrate it has been any cheaper – both as actual cost and as opportunity cost, since that time could have been put to other, presumably more productive, uses. What Google is doing now by actively ignoring other information sources is only creating new ‘walled gardens’ inside the greater web and the more personal ‘social’ web. Somehow I don’t see that turning out good, neither for Google, nor for users.