Why Twitter, Facebook and Google Need to Be More Social

Wednesday Jan 11th 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Users should advocate solutions that result in Twitter and Facebook social data enjoying an equal footing with Google+ in search results.

Google did something both inevitable and unexpected this week: They announced the integration of Google+ into Google Search.

That's the inevitable part. They call the new feature Search plus Your World.

The unexpected part is that Google gives easy controls for turning off the social features. Two new buttons appear to the right of search results. One turns “Your World” on, and the other turns it off.

When I search for my own name on the new Google Search, the first result is a link to my Google+ profile.

(Note that the new social integration is available only to English-language users for now, and is still being rolled out. You may not have it yet.)

The second result is a sampling from Google Image search. The sample includes four pictures I posted recently on Google+ that I'm tagged in. One of them was posted publicly, and the other three were posted privately to my “Family” and “Friends” Google+ circles.

All four are captioned with "You." The reason is that I'm logged in with my universal Google username and password, and I've been tagged in the pictures. Google knows who I am, and knows who’s in the pictures. It also knows who’s granted what permissions on Google+. And that’s what “Search plus Your World” does. It shows you what Google knows you have permission to see, and favors what Google believes are content sources you’re close to.

The private pictures I see cannot be seen by anyone outside the circles I addressed them to on Google+ when I posted them. However, because I have permission to view my own private pictures, they now show up on Google Image search, shuffled in (but clearly marked) along with public photos.

While the ill-informed may experience an emotional reaction at first upon seeing private pictures in a space where they're used to seeing only public ones, and charge invasion of privacy, actually the opposite is true.

So while Google plus Your World makes it easy for me to see which pictures of me are being shared on Google+, it does not tell me which pictures of me are being shared on Facebook. That’s a much harder thing to figure out.

By surfacing pictures of your self after an ego search, it becomes clearer than ever exactly which pictures are public and which are private. Ignorance about what’s being shared doesn’t increase privacy.

Critics charge that Google's new social search option gives preferential treatment to Google+ over social rivals Twitter and Facebook and represents an example of a complaint now being explored by the FTC. The complaint is that Google favors its own services in search results.

The loudest critic to date has been Twitter. The company issued an angry statement this week blasting Google for "Your World."

Twitter wrote (in a post too long for Twitter, ironically): "We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users."

Google countered this criticism on a Google+ post that said: "We are a bit surprised by Twitter's comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer, and since then we have observed their rel=nofollow instructions."

A prior agreement, which ended last year, enabled Google to offer Twitter results as Google's "real-time search" feature.

Google says, in a nutshell, that Twitter social signals aren't integrated as completely as Google+ data is because Twitter opted out. Twitter chose not to participate and actively blocks Google from integrating the information in Google Search results.

It's unknowable how accurate Google's position is.

That the two companies failed to agree on Twitter integration doesn't mean Twitter was unreasonable in its negotiations. Maybe Google was unreasonable. This is a judgment call most of us aren’t in a position to make.

What we do know, according to reports last summer, is that Twitter had demanded a doubling of its fee to renew the contract. It wanted Google to pay Twitter twice the previous rate, and get $30 million per year from Google, as well as a cut in advertising revenue.

This is the under-appreciated controversy of this whole mess.

It’s not that Google is using the exclusive social signals of its own Google+ social network, and excluding others, as critics charge.

And it’s not that Twitter has decided to opt out of Google Search results, as Google claims.

The truth is that the companies failed to agree on the terms of a business deal that would have fully integrated Twitter into Search results.

It’s like this: Google makes some unknown amount of money from advertising that accompanies search results. Twitter attracts additional searches and additional eyeballs to Google Search, and therefore increases amount of money Google makes from Twitter inclusion. So Twitter integration is worth some amount of money to Google.

How much? Twitter says more. Google says less. They didn’t agree. So that’s why Twitter isn’t fully integrated anymore.

Instead of re-upping it’s contract, Twitter instead cut deals with Microsoft, Yahoo, NTT Docomo and Yahoo Japan.

And it appears that Google is trying to integrate Twitter results as much as it can anyway.

For example, I’m a heavy Google+ users. Robert Scoble is a heavy Google+ user. I never interact with Scoble on Twitter.

When I search for “Robert Scoble” on Google Search plus Your World, I would expect the top links to be Google+ results and Twitter results to be buried.

But that’s not what happens.

I get three results ahead of the Google+ profile link. The first is Scoble’s blog, the second is his Wikipedia page and the third is -- wait for it -- his Twitter page.

The fourth result is Google+, which comes after Twitter.

Still, despite this surprising fact, the new Search is clearly the Google+ show.

In a better world, every social network would be represented on every major search service in a way that reflects each user’s usage and connections on those social services.

So, for example, when I search for "Bahamas," I should see not only a links to the usual Wikipedia entry and Bahamas tourist bureau web site, but also the family-only post my cousin made last year about his trip to the Bahamas on Facebook, the pictures my sister posted on Google+ from her trip to the Bahamas addressed only to me -- and a few tweets my colleagues have posted about the Bahamas.

The larger question is: How to we achieve this better world?

Now that Google doesn't need Twitter for real-time search, what incentive does Google have for negotiating a fair deal with Twitter?

Now that Google doesn't need Facebook and Facebook's "Like" button for social signaling in Search, what incentive does Google have to use Facebook's social signals?

Google would say that their incentive is that the more people use the Internet and use Search, the more money they make. That’s true, and it’s a persuasive argument.

If that’s the case, then what incentives do Twitter and Facebook have to participate in agreements and policies that enable Google to remain the leading access point for the Internet, rather than ceding leadership to Facebook and Twitter, as those companies would prefer?

We now face three basic options:

Option 1: If integration deals can’t be reached with Twitter and Facebook, Google wins because Google+ quickly becomes the de facto and ultimate source of social data and search signals for everyone who uses Google Search (which is everyone).

Option 2: If Twitter and Facebook choose to fully participate and make it possible for their social data to have equal footing with Google+ in search, Google also wins because Google becomes the primary and unified source for social data.

Option 3: If the powers that be somehow prevent Google from using Google+ in search results (something I consider very unlikely), then Google suffers as social data remains locked away inside every social network.

Of these three options, Option 1 is best for Google, Option 2 is best for users and Option 3 is best for Twitter and Facebook.

And that's why we should all get behind Option 2.

Critics of Google’s new Search plus Your World feature, in other words, should resist the temptation for advocating the nuclear option, which is Option 3.

Although a superficial glance at the issue may appear that Google is favoring its own company and therefore should be “punished,” the Option 3 solution involves the courts forcing social data back into their closed, walled gardens and halting progress on the social revolution. Lawyers shouldn’t determine the evolution of technology.

Instead, critics should advocate solutions that result in Twitter and Facebook social data enjoying an equal footing with Google+ in search results.

Yes, that benefits Google more than Twitter or Facebook. But it also benefits users.

The name of Google’s new Search feature gets it just right. It’s not supposed to be “their world.” It’s supposed to be “Your World.”

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