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The Impending Social Search Inflection Point

Search has changed. Online consumer information retrieval has reached another
inflexion point – a shift from pure algorithmic search to social search.
Searchers have become increasingly sophisticated, and basic algorithmic web
results are getting diluted out of most mainstream search experiences such as
Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Ask. Search is not solved. At their most
sophisticated, users are still too often at a loss when executing a search.
According to Jupiter, 41.2 percent of users report that general search results
are often not directly relevant to queries, and 18 percent leave a search engine
without having found the information they were seeking.

First, there was basic algorithmic search (such as AltaVista), and then came
very predictable paid search business models to fuel innovation. The industry is
now maneuvering through its third era:

social search
. Humans are still better at some things. Relevance remains
number one. Throughout the past decade, a search engine’s most critical success
factors – relevance, comprehensiveness, performance, freshness, and ease of use
– have remained fairly stable. Relevance is more subjective than ever and must
take into consideration the holistic search experience one user at a time.
Inferring each user’s intent from a mere 2.1 search terms remains at the core of
the relevance challenge

Social search addresses relevance head-on. After "on-the-page" and
"off-the-page" criteria, web connectivity and link authority, relevance is now
increasingly augmented by implicit and explicit user behaviors, social networks
and communities.


Monthly trend chart indicating the percentage
among total English-language blog posts that mentioned "social search". (Nielsen
BuzzMetrics BlogPulse)

What Is Social Search?

What is social search? To paraphrase Microsoft’s
Ramez Naam, it’s like every human
being is a neuron, and humanity as a whole is one giant brain, smarter as a
connected whole. If you can increase the ability of humans to communicate with
each other, you make the whole planet smarter.

As articulated by Chris Sherman, social search is information retrieval, way
finding tools informed by human judgment. Social search is people helping people
find stuff using plain-language questions and answers, collaborative content
harvesting, directory building, voting and ranking, sharing, tagging, commenting
on bookmarks, Web pages, news, images, videos and podcasts.

The wisdom of crowds – so well articulated by
James Surowiecki
is at the root of emerging information retrieval tools. Search engines are
trying to resolve user intent more than content connectivity, and social search
adds a new relevance layer to information retrieval in the form of context,
freshness and some understanding of personal significance, personalization.

There is a shift underway from the few powerful elite to the empowerment of
the masses, from few-to-many to many-to-many publishing models with an explosion
in consumer-generated media. According to a Pew Internet and American Life
report, 44 percent of Internet users are content creators. A significant ratio
of the top 100 results for more queries are consumer-generated media such as
blogs and social networks, which sounds like an invitation for social media
marketers to seed more content. Internet users are getting a lot more
comfortable interacting with the Web, as illustrated by MySpace’s 159,271,726
profiles (as of February 28, 2007), and the web is getting a whole lot more
fluid and transparent. That said, not everybody needs to be tagging and voting
for collaborative efforts to reach critical-mass impact and benefit the rest of
us. There is a shift taking place from the head to Chris Anderson’s
long tail.

Social search offers a new discovery paradigm. Internet search is for getting
stuff done; it’s an in-and-out navigational tool. Search is also very much about
discovery browsing and community-driven recommendation engines. Discovery
browsing is entering a whole new navigation paradigm exemplified by companies
like StumbleUpon. The traditional
linear directory navigation model is broken. Most emerging social discovery
engines are adopting tag clouds as navigation tools that complement the search

Altering Search’s Economics

Web 2.0 innovations are disruptive. The emergence of open standards, richer
user experiences, content portability, social networks and communities are quite
disruptive to traditional algorithmic search, and are converging toward social
search. Information retrieval is changing in real time. Web 2.0 open standards
have in essence separated the content we search from its format and dedicated
application. More and more frequently, information is being pushed to consumers
before they even have a chance to use a search engine to pull it from the Web.
AJAX and Flash are turning web pages into applications, themselves becoming
platform-independent mashups of RSS feeds, smart widgets, badges, and modules.
Aren’t we all spending more time in aggregators, emails, and applications that
automatically pull in information? Is the results page slowly getting
marginalized as the web’s main information retrieval space?

Social search levels the economics. The explosion of consumer-generated
media, the emergence of social search and the rise of the net’s culture of
participation will eventually force a democratization of the web’s economics.
Content-generating users, driving traffic and eyeballs, will increasingly share
the wealth. The web is slowly but surely leveling the playing field for the rest
of us in the tail. More and more personal blogs, MySpace profiles, and other
communities display advertising and widgets wrapped around democratization of
revenue share including payment. Consumers will eventually share the wealth in a
more democratic way. YouTube announced a revenue-sharing program with authors;
Bill Gates himself discussed rewarding users for searching. Content-generating
users are increasingly part of the economics as well. Eurekster already goes one
step further

how valuable swicky communities are, estimating that some
swickies could actually generate up to $30,000 a year in revenue to their owners
and be worth up to $300,000 if a buyer used typical methods for valuation.

Advertisers traditionally follow consumers. Social search is already
channeling significant amounts of traffic and should accelerate the pace of
brand advertising dollars shifting online. Internet sentiment analysis, buzz
monitoring and online reputation management could very well emerge as the next
significant search marketing era after search engine optimization and paid

Conclusion: Search is the OS

Search is the operating system. If Web 1.0 was about getting online and Web
2.0 about collaborative networking, then Web 3.0 must be about making all of
this useful and productive. In more than one way, search is the internet OS
underlying most Web 2.0 applications. Search is the Internet OS connecting
disjointed pieces of data hosted in totally different places and creating
incremental knowledge value. Search is the Internet OS bridging communities and
enabling content experiences.

Search veteran Arnaud Fischer was AltaVista’s initial lead search product
manager and now is programming director with AOL
Search & Directional

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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