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SES 2006: Social Search Overview

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Search Engine Watch executive editor Chris Sherman hosted the session on social search, which covered the impact of human knowledge and activity on search engines.

SES 2006: Social Search Overview
The Benefits Of Social Search
Search Engine Strategies Conference

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Managing editor Mike McDonald of WebProNews filed this exclusive look at the SES 2006 San Jose session on social search.

Chris Sherman opened the session by defining social search, calling it a collection of Internet wayfinding tools informed by human judgment. That judgment takes place in the form of tags, click-through activity, search history, and other actions.

That may be as good as the definition gets for some time. There isn’t a standard definition for social search yet, and a lot of companies big and small would not mind being the ones to shape it.

Sherman credited World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee with being the first to create a guide that was the earliest form of social search. At that point, search engines were inefficient; algorithmic search methods had not arrived yet.

Fast forward from 1990 to 2006. Social search is having an impact. “Increasingly we’re seeing search engines coming out with personalization efforts,” said Sherman. “That data is going to be fed back into the loop and impact the general search.”

“What search engines are doing is saying, ‘hey lets tap into this huge resource of user brainpower’ to improve search results.”

What is Social Search?
One can split up what social search is today into several categories:
Shared bookmarks (Delicious, Furl)
Tag engines (blogs RSS – Technorati, Bloglines)
Collaborative directories (ODP, Prefound, Zimbo, wikipedia)
Personalized verticals (Eurekster, Yahoo Search Builder)
Collaborative harvesters (Digg, Netscape, Popurls.com) that focus on news, etc.
Social Q&A sites (Google Answers, Yahoo Answers, Answerbag)

Social search has hit some problems along the way. The scale and scope of information has grown so much that automation, like Yahoo Search, has had to take the place of the original hand-edited manual directory.

“I’m not sure people, even millions of people, ARE going to be able to keep up with all this information,” said Sherman.

The ambiguity of language has led to tagging issues. “On the Web we don’t have controlled vocabulary, even if we did, we aren’t going to use it,” Sherman commented, and he is right about that.

Human laziness and search spider dumbness make things difficult, too. But the worst problem comes from those who exploit whatever they can online for personal gain – the spammers.

Said Sherman: “Any system that emerges in search, there are people who will aggressively do whatever they can to optimize their content.” He thinks trust networks will emerge as disenchantment with useless spam content increases along with spammer knowledge of how new systems work.

Grant Ryan, chief scientist at Eurekster, spoke next. He called Eurekster a printing press, not a publisher.

By enabling people to build vertical searches with Eurekster, site publishers can optimize their search for a specific audience, and monetize their work.

Ryan’s talk led into that of Tim Mayer of Yahoo. He disclosed the launch of Yahoo Search Builder, which essentially puts Yahoo in competition with Eurekster.

Mayer, a long-time veteran of SES, summarized social search as “better search through people.”

“Websearch is not very good for subjective queries,” Mayer said. “In social search you are staking your reputation.”

No one wants to looks bad at answering a subjective query. The best answers may come out of the growing number of users who tag content. “We see the next breakthrough as using the tagging community as sources of authority,” said Mayer.

Nils Pohlmann from Microsoft also spoke on social search, saying it “is enabling social network to refine or create additional search results.”

“In the past, community content used to be chat in user forums and newsgroups. Today there are many other more interesting sources.”

Like Mayer, Pohlman noted that reputation is important in social search. Microsoft’s Ideas Live beta lets others see the reputation score others have earned.

“Building up reputation is critical,” he said.


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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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