Week before last, Google fired its biggest salvo yet in its battle with Facebook to be the world's most important Web site: It began rolling information from its Google+ social network into the results at its namesake search engine.
I'm not sure how the average Google user feels about this development, but the response of the Google-watching blogosphere has been overwhelmingly critical. Search expert Danny Sullivan has done an excellent series of posts, saying that Google is playing favorites by emphasizing Google+ over rivals such as Facebook and Twitter. Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily argues that Google has violated a promise Google CEO Larry Page once made not to favor Google content over the rest of the Web.
Then there's a new browser toolbar, created by Facebook and Twitter engineers in their spare time, that shows you how different Google's new Search, Plus Your World results are from its old results.
I wrote about Search, Plus Your World for TIME.com last week, and gave its current version a thumbs down. I said that it proved that making search results more personal didn't necessarily make them more relevant. Especially given that Google+ remains immature and isn't yet rich with detail on most folks' friends, interests, and other data points.
When Google launched its revised engine, it published a blog post by Google Fellow Amit Singhal that called the new features "magical" and the start of "a beautiful journey." Eric Schmidt also told Danny Sullivan that Search, Plus Your World wasn't designed to favor Google+ and that Google was happy to strike deals with Facebook and Twitter to incorporate their content.
Since then, as far as I've seen, Google hasn't responded publicly to any of the carping about the Google+ integration's impact on results. I imagine its strategy is to hunker down, hoping that the initial criticism will peter out and that future improvements will convince users (and pundits) that Search, Plus Your World is a step forward. That may happen.
But for now, even cursory analysis of Search, Plus Your World shows that Google is doing what Page once said was a conflict of interest which could hurt search results: It's promoting its own content, in the form of Google+ links, over other relevant sites.
How can it rationalize doing that?
I have no inside information, but I think the answer is pretty obvious, and it's all there in the name "Google+." Google doesn't see Google+ as yet another Google service--a stablemate of YouTube, Picasa, Gmail, and other offerings. It sees it as the next generation of the service that's at the company's core, its search engine.
Therefore, adding a splash of Google+ to Google results isn't like force-fitting YouTube videos or Picasa photos into Google search. It's merely the first step in a process that will eventually leave Google search and Google+ so deeply intertwined that they're one thing. And the company is so dedicated to this vision, and so sure it can pull it off, that it's willing to tick off people with the clumsy version of Search, Plus Your World that it released this month.
I'm not sure if millions of Google users are going to buy this theory. For Google's sake, they better: If anything could damage the company, it would be Web searchers deciding en masse that Google search was broken. But if I'm right about Google's thinking--and federal officials don't intervene--don't expect it to undo Search, Plus Your World just because those of us outside Google don't yet understand that Google+ is Google.