Editors' note: This is a guest column. See bios of Marvin Ammori and Luke Pelican below.
A tech giant announces plans to bring search to a new level. It will provide users access to a wealth of information based on their social relationships. It promises to transform search from an automated lists of results into something more meaningful and relevant for users: "social search."
But the year isn't 2012; it's 2006. And the company isn't Google; it's Microsoft.
Microsoft wasn't alone. Yahoo had announced similar plans and had been experimenting with its "Yahoo Answers." The company went on to try different search approaches but failed to deliver a groundbreaking product.
A year later, the technology blog ReadWriteWeb listed the top 17 "disruptive" search engine innovations (outside of Google, that is.) Nos. 2 and 8 on that list were respectively personalization and social input. "Social search," which relies on information from a person's social circles, combines these ideas--putting together information from your family, friends, and others, and providing it to you, where relevant, in response to your search query.
Microsoft has continued on the path of social search. Partnering with Facebook, its Bing search engine now provides a social-search function powered by information shared by Facebook friends. The Bing team now advertises that the most relevant search results "require the opinions and recommendations of your friends."
Facebook, meanwhile, launched its own social-search projects aimed squarely at knocking Google off its pedestal, including what it has deemed "curated search," which evaluates search results based on a Facebook user's online social data. And with the company's recent expansion of Open Graph apps, which share information about what a person watches, reads, or listens to online, Facebook stands to transform what we now consider search into something entirely new.
In short, the quest for social search dates back a half a decade, to a time when dial-up connections were more common than broadband. So it was only natural for a competitor to Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook to move into social search.
A few weeks ago, in early January, Google announced a new social-search product called "Search, Plus Your World." This is not Google's first try at getting social-search right--its first attempt was with Google Social Search three years ago. Search Plus integrates content from Google+ into Google search results, providing users with "relevant tips, photos, and posts from your friends right alongside results from the Web." Sounds like what its competitors have also been working to get right for years.
The response to Google's latest endeavor has been decidedly mixed. Some groups have raised privacy concerns over the greater accessibility of user information on the Web--even though that information is only accessible to the same people, through a new platform. Some of Google's competitors have played the antitrust card, claiming that Search Plus is another step in Google's hegemonic takeover of the Internet. Facebook and Twitter argued the Google is propping up its social-network venture while diminishing the quality of its search results. Some of their engineers even created a browser bookmarklet tool that integrates results from Twitter and Facebook into your Google search results.
Does Search Plus really warrant this hand-wringing and consternation? Probably not.
The privacy concerns stem more from misconceptions than fact. Search Plus results derived from Google+ are available only to the same people they're available to on Google+, based on preferences and circles you can change. No new information is placed online or shared with new people.
The antitrust concerns arise not out of misconceptions of fact but of law. The antitrust laws do not condemn aggressive competition or innovation. They condemn exclusionary acts by monopolists such as predatory pricing and certain tying actions.
There is a presumption against concluding that an action is exclusionary, if other competitors engage in the same conduct. Google is doing what other search engines have long attempted: social search. It is using information from Google+ partly because the information from Facebook and Twitter is unavailable to Google. And there is little danger that Google will monopolize social networks merely by including Google+ results in its own search results. This simply appears to be an attempt at aggressive competition to provide what consumers are demanding.
But maybe Google's critics have a point about Search Plus not being everyone's cup of tea. Neither of the authors of this piece particularly care which sushi restaurant our friends visited last night, or which Washington Post article our high-school buddies 1+'d. We can select the option of toggling personal results on or off, or we can switch search engines altogether.
Consumer preference can be a fickle beast, and doubly so in a market where the costs of switching to an alternative service are quite low. If other Web users get put off by Search Plus, they can direct their browser away from Google and visit another search engine. That would benefit those competitors, as users turn to Bing, Facebook, Twitter and other sites. So these competitors should either celebrate Google's mistake or scramble for their disaffected users, rather than reaching for the pitchforks.