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Social Relevance in Search

Back before the internet, the main ways to find out about stuff were to look in books or to ask people. For more serious, academic topics, you might turn to books—encyclopedias if you were in a hurry. But for everyday recommendations, you might just ask somebody: where’s the best brunch in Brookline, what dry cleaners should I go to? You didn’t have Google, Yelp, Chowhound, or other similar services to help you out.

Now it’s starting to feel like search—parts of it, at least—is coming full circle. On ReadWriteWeb, Brynn Evans discusses social relevancy in search, wondering about the best way to achieve it. Several obstacles are explored: imperfect access to information (your social search tools will not have access to information from everyone you want to get information from), varying levels of expertise (an attorney doesn’t always want her friends’ “opinions” on a law; rather, she might be more interested in professional perspectives on it), and so on.

Evans creates a continuum, from active search to passive discovery. On the continuum, in this order, RWW identifies the following: friends and following, taste neighbors, friends-of-friends, experts and influencers, and “the crowd.” That is, social aspects matter more when search is more active. If you’re in the “market,” so to speak, for a new dry cleaner’s, you will ask your friends in addition to perhaps searching online. But if you are satisfied with your existing service you will not seek out a new one, and only passively file away (probably to be forgotten) information you come across about dry cleaners.

One interesting aspect of the search-discovery continuum that Evans proposes is that social media can be woven throughout it. There’s no necessary distinction between social and non-social search; rather, the distinction is between the level of urgency/necessity of the search. Additionally, it’s possible to flip the proposed continuum: it’s easy to imagine situations in which you’re actively searching for something that you want an expert opinion on, rather than that of your friend. If you need legal advice, for example, you’re probably not going to tweet about it—or you might, but you’ll ultimately go with your lawyer’s response rather than your best friend’s.

I think the takeaway from Evans’ continuum and the notion of social search in general is that social information—of which we have so much now, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and the like—is going to be continually important in search. From the proposed Wikia Search (a user-powered search engine where users could “vote” on results) to retweets of important or popular information, there are many approaches to take to social search. The apparent demise of Wikia Search is unfortunate, but computerized algorithms will not continue to be the status quo of search. The algorithms should be adjusted to take into account human input and ratings. Human response—even in the form of blog/article comments, too long neglected as sources of information—must be calibrated in some way. This will change the search game and SEO for good, but it will also—hopefully—make better information easier to access.

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