Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Social Side of Search

Is search social media?

In response to Jermiah Owyang's query on twitter I said "maybe". Since 140 characters is a bit short, here's my thinking.

The original question came from part of a post entitled 'so who do consumers trust?' It includes the following with italics added:

50%: Say they trust portals/search engines: In Google We Trust, is that Charlene Li frequently used to tell me, and it still holds true. When you look closely, the search engine results in Google are really social recommendations. How so? The Google algorithm (while I’m over simplifying) puts a great deal of weight on how humans organize, link, and create content.

So to the question at hand: Are search results social media?

First, some definitions and assumptions:
1. Search refers to organic results and not paid.
2. Media are vehicles by which messages are carried, e.g broadcast media, online media, and social media.
3. Social is a fuzzy concept, but generally refers to people interacting in communities or groups.

Given the above, search results are definitely a medium by which a message is conveyed. "This page has several things we think you'll find relevant based on the keywords you entered." Reducing a bazillion pages to a simple set of 3-line bites that can be quickly scanned is the essence of search engines. With the help of the people writing those pages we have a very powerful medium for getting a message out.

But is it social?

The original point was that the engines use the human activities of organizing, linking and creating content (in part) to produce the set of recommendations shown. This makes it a set of 'social recommendations'.

In the strictest sense it is not direct, social interaction in the way word-of-mouth is. Nor is there an opportunity to clear up the issues of intent and context in the way that conversations allow. Finally, there is a fair amount of manipulation going on to get to the top of the page - when that is the sole objective it is only social to the extent that bullies are also social.

The second thought was about the search engine's role in the process. In a group or community, participants play an active role and usually stay involved. Search, and Google in particular, is a way station. They can be described as the world's largest and most successful travel agencies. Their mission is not to just organize the world's information but more importantly put us on the correct path toward a destination. If 'time on site' is a measure of engagement, then Google doesn't play a significant role as an active member of a community.

However, in a broader sense - what other medium do we have that allows us a peek at how others view the world? How do we find like minded individuals? How do we coalesce around the common interests that are the new demographics? Certainly advertising media don't provide this; they simply have another objective to achieve. It seems that in this sense search results provide an abstraction or snapshot of a set of human endeavors geared at telling their story. Since the algorithms look over their shoulders at what other people are doing (thinking?) it could be argued that they are in fact social recommendations.

So, I came up with the 'maybe.'

Why does this matter? Because the language of social media often defines how people talk about their needs, wants and desires. Thus, it should certainly be used in search marketing - both natural and paid. In fact, your brand monitoring efforts should report on the popularity not only of key words and their relationship with one another but also where they are likely to occur and with what other concepts and ideas to they relate to.

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