Why Critics of Google's New Social Search are Wrong

Thursday Jan 19th 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Claims that Google's new 'Search, plus Your World' is unfairly boosting Google's own service, and that the new service lessens search results, are decidedly wrong-headed.

Google did what everyone expected last week, and integrated Google+ social results into Search. And then the knives came out.

Search engine guru Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land says Google’s new Search plus Your World feature unfairly favors Google+.

Slate magazine's Farhad Manjoo says Search plus Your World reduces the quality of Google Search results.

And The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has complained that Search plus Your World is an anti-trust violation and has called on the FTC to investigate.

Even Hitler hates Search plus Your World (warning: humorous YouTube video with adult language).

As a result of strong and ubiquitous criticism of Search plus Your World, a consensus has formed that the feature is unfair to competitors, reduces the quality of search and is illegal.

The critics are wrong.

In fact, Search plus Your World is fair, improves search and is not an anti-trust violation. Here’s why.

Criticism 1: "Search plus Your World unfairly favors Google over Twitter and Facebook."

That idea that Google+ is favored over other social networks in Google’s new Search has been most persuasively argued by Sullivan. His position is that Search plus Your World is a departure from what Google Search has been in the past, which is neutral between external sites, including its own.

Sullivan argues his case by comparing Google+ to YouTube (which is a Google-owned site).

If you search for "Lady Gaga" on Google Search, you'll see that both YouTube videos of Ms. Gaga and Google+ links about her -- including her own Google+ profile -- are prominently displayed, and are generally more emphasized than competing respective video sites and social networks.

And that’s the problem, according to Sullivan. YouTube results should rise above the rest because YouTube videos of Lady Gaga are more numerous and popular than Gaga videos on other video sites. YouTube is emphasized based on merit.

Google+, on the other hand, is treated as the major site for Gaga information when in fact it is not. The singer is far more popular and active on, say, Facebook and Twitter than on Google+, where her account is less than a week old.

Historically, Google has favored its own destination sites only when those sites earned it by being more popular or relevant according to the same criteria used on all sites.

That's Sullivan's argument, as I understand it.

The problem is that Sullivan is making an apples-to-oranges comparison. He's comparing a category of sites where the competitors are open to indexing with a category of sites where the competitors are closed to indexing.

A more accurate comparison could be made with Google's own dictionary compared with, say, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

I would love getting OED results when I search for words. However, Google favors its own dictionary and does not provide OED definitions in search results.

Nobody blames Google for this, because the OED has not made its definitions available to Google. The OED prefers that in order to gain access to data, users must have an account, and participate in the OED's monetization strategy. Exactly like Facebook.

I'm sure that if Google offered the OED a billion dollars, they'd be happy to open their dictionary to Google Search. But nobody is calling on Google to pay the OED a billion dollars, or saying that Google's results are biased as a result.

Likewise, if Google paid Facebook a billion dollars, they, too, would probably open their data to Google. In fact, Microsoft did pay Facebook, and Facebook did open to Microsoft.

OED vs. Google's dictionary is an apples-to-apples comparison with Facebook vs. Google+, while YouTube vs. other video sites is a false comparison.

And when an apples-to-apples comparison is made, Sullivan's argument falls apart.

Critics argue that Google should include results from Twitter and Facebook. But why those two? Why not LinkedIn, MySpace, Reddit, Digg, Bebo and thousands of other social networks?

Or are they arguing that Google shouldn't favor any social network, but include hundreds of them in the social component of search?

These are unanswered questions, for the most part, because asking them invites scrutiny of the implications of lazily slamming Search plus Your World as unfair.

These services aren't open. They're closed.

They don't make user-posted content, as well as the permissions information that would be required to put them on an equal footing with Google+, available to search engine companies -- unless they sign a business deal that involves the transfer of millions or billions of dollars from Google to those companies.

What the critics who call for equal treatment of competing social networks are actually demanding is for Google to annually negotiate access deals with hundreds of social services – and agreeing to whatever their terms are no matter what -- in order to be “fair.”

And if they’re not calling for this, ask them what they want Google to do? How is Google supposed to get the data?

Besides, the so-called “exclusion” of social data from search has been going on since the first day Google launched.

There has always been a parallel "invisible web" -- web-based content that is blocked from being indexed by search engines. In fact, the "invisible web" is far larger than the visible web. Google “excludes” from Search results the vast majority of web content, social and otherwise.

Facebook has decided that most user-posted content is part of the "invisible web." Facebook tightly and expertly controls exactly what Google is allowed to index. Facebook allows Microsoft to index a lot more for its Bing search engine because the two companies have formed a "strategic alliance" to work together against Google. In fact, Microsoft is part owner of Facebook with a 1.6% stake valued at well over a billion dollars.

However, and like all "invisible web" data, the way to best search Facebook is to become a member of this private service, then use the internal search engine.

In that sense, Facebook is like any of thousands of message boards, intranets and chat rooms on the “invisible web” that are not made available to the public or to search engines.

Non-indexable old-school social networking is every bit as "social" as Facebook information, and it’s every bit as "invisible" to Google.

In other words, Google has been "excluding" "invisible web" social data for the entire history of Google Search -- and did so long before Twitter and Facebook existed.

Just because "social networking" is a buzzword in vogue, and just because Facebook is the current darling of the media, doesn't mean Google’s so-called "exclusion" of Facebook's "invisible web" data is new. It's not.

If companies want to keep their data away from Google's index, they have a right to do that.

Twitter is another major critic of Search plus Your World. The company mailed to journalists a statement slamming the feature.

Critics who support Twitter pretend that Twitter's bizarrely self-righteous complaint is this: "We give our social data to Google and they won't use it."

In fact, Twitter’s complaint is this: "Google won't pay us double the old price for our data and give us the cut in ad revenue we demanded."

Twitter and Google had previously cooperated on delivering real-time Twitter content to Google for Search until Twitter demanded double the payment and a lot more share in advertising revenue. The companies failed to agree, and the deal was not renewed.

That’s what critics downplay: The whole problem of including the social data of other social networks is purely a problem of reaching business deals.

The issue is not about Google's ethics. It's about Google's parsimony. Twitter and Facebook want more money for that data than Google is willing to pay. That’s the only reason the data is not included.

Despite that, Google still grabs all the Twitter and Facebook data it can and integrates it into social search. Many searches will result in Twitter or Facebook data being favored over Google+ data.

So the argument that Google is being unfair to Twitter and Facebook is inconsistent with the facts, to put it charitably.

Criticism 2: "Google+ signals reduce the quality of search results."

Google Search lives or dies according to the quality of its search results. If the integration of Google+ data ruins search, Google will pay the price with lost market share. If that data improves search, Google will be rewarded.

I happen to think Search plus Your World improves results.

When I search for "Lady Gaga" on Google Search, the first link I get is Lady Gaga's official web site. The second result is the Lady Gaga News page on her official site. The third result is my own Google+ post telling my followers on Google+ that Lady Gaga joined the service. The fourth result is the post of one of my friends on Google+ who's a huge Lady Gaga fan. The fifth link is Lady Gaga's Wikipedia page.

This is a breathtakingly relevant result. Gaga’s home page should come first and second. That's reasonable. My own post should come third. And the fourth result really impressed me.

I have 1,357 people circled on Google+. I'm sure that many of them have mentioned Lady Gaga. However, the one friend showing up as the fourth result on my Lady Gaga search is in fact the biggest Lady Gaga fan I know. She's also a person I trust for quality links and content.

So I search for Lady Gaga, and Google finds the one person I know who is most gaga about Gaga, and gives me that person’s most relevant Gaga link. Wow!

After choosing the one very best link from my own social graph as the fourth result, Google then goes back to Wikipedia as the fifth result.

Google is not filling my results with Google+ links. Nor is it ignoring social signals. This is exactly how social signals should affect search results: intelligently.

I'll tell you what I told Slate's Farhad Manjoo, who complained after doing his own testing that social signals ruined Search results: If you don't like Google's social results now, just wait. Google's algorithms are constantly and automatically re-configured based on the behavior of users. As users click or don't click on various links, including social links, these behaviors will by recycled back into the mix to improve results going forward.

In short, the complaint that Search plus Your World harms results is a bad argument.

If it's a problem, it's a self-correcting one both in terms of market acceptance and in terms of algorithm optimization.

Criticism 3: "Search plus Your World is an anti-trust violation."

Anti-trust works like this. When a company has a position in the market "dominant" enough to be considered a "monopoly," where there is a significant barrier to switching to competitors and when that company uses its dominance in one business area to unfairly favor another business area, government lawyers try to get the courts to impose “remedies” that correct the violation.

Comparisons are being made between Google’s "bundling" of Google+ in Search and Microsoft’s bundling of the Internet Explorer browser in Windows.

As TIME magazine's Jerry Brito made clear, there is no anti-trust violation in Search plus Your World.

Google does not have a Microsoft-like monopoly on Search. Microsoft had well over a 90% share of the PC operating system business in its heyday -- Google has 65% and falling. And the barrier to switching is non-existent. Just type "bing" and you've switched.

The FTC will investigate and toss the complaint away. It’s a non-starter.

The critics of Google’s new Search plus Your World feature are loud, numerous and up in arms. They’re also wrong. Google’s new social search feature is fair, it improves search and it’s not at all an anti-trust violation.

Meanwhile, I’d like to invite you to circle me on Google+. My profile is not hard to find. Just Google me.

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