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Social Search – The Next Big Thing?

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Search technology has been marked by a few big leaps in its history. What began with relatively crude algorithmic analysis of the content of individual pages was improved dramatically by Google’s sophisticated use of off-page criteria, notably PageRank and link anchor text analysis.

While refinements continue – Google now reportedly uses more than a hundred or two criteria in its rankings, held together by complex weighting schemes – the basic nature of search technology hasn’t changed much lately.

To date, search technology has been driven by a couple of goals – one is matching the search results to the intent of the searcher, and the other is preventing manipulation of the results for commercial gain (or, perhaps more simply, preventing spam). Neither of these is an easy task. While todays search results are far superior to those of a decade ago, search engines understandably have a hard time figuring out what someone who searches for “windows help” wants – assistance with upgrading to Vista, learning how to reglaze a broken pane and paint muntins, or something else entirely. Spam prevention is difficult as well, primarily because creative and well-financed SEO practitioners typically find shortcuts to high rankings, whether it’s matching page content to algorithm sweet spots or buying massive quantities of links.

Could social search be the next big leap? Some think so. In The Impending Social Search Inflection Point at Search Engine Land, AOL Search/Time Warner progamming director Arnaud Fischer makes the case for social search as being a key component in “Web 3.0″. So what is social search?

As articulated by Chris Sherman, social search is information retrieval, way finding tools informed by human judgment. Social search is people helping people find stuff, including allowing users to ask plain English questions and get plain English answers. It’s collaborative content harvesting, directory building, voting and ranking, sharing, tagging, commenting on bookmarks, web pages, news, images, videos and podcasts. Social search reflects the wisdom of crowds.

Fischer also notes,

Ajax and flash technologies are turning web pages into applications, becoming themselves platform independent mashups of RSS feeds, smart widgets, badges and modules. Is the search result page slowly getting marginalized as the web’s main information retrieval space?

The explosion of consumer generated media, the emergence of social search, and the rise of the net’s culture of participation will eventually force a democratization of the web’s economics. Content generating users, driving traffic and eye balls, will increasingly share the wealth. The web is slowly but surely leveling the playing field for the rest of us.

Of course, social search is already upon us with tools like Flickr and del.icio.us. The real question is how the mainstream search tools, notably market leader Google, will adapt social search to its purposes. Fischer concludes that search is the Internet’s operating system, since it has the ability to connect disparate data from different sources and deliver it to users and communities.

Yahoo says it’s trying to incorporate social search into the mix in, Connecting People to the World’s Knowledge through Social Search: “A clear example of this is Yahoo!’s practice of integrating knowledge from the Yahoo! Answers community into search. If you look at the Yahoo! Search results, you will see a new section that features an excerpt of the best answers to questions that are relevant to your search.” That’s hardly a stunning example of social search integration, but Yahoo is clearly looking at the area.

Fischer makes good points about the long-term potential of social search, but I think one interesting area will be how, in the relatively short run, conventional search engines use social search techniques to enhance results. Clearly social cues might help solve some of the “user intent” issues, and while nothing is spam-proof, heavier weighting of social criteria would raise the bar for would-be spammers and force them to develop a new (and perhaps more costly) set of tools and techniques. What do you think? Is social search a faddish buzzword, or truly the Next Big Thing?

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