Google +1: Does Search Need to be Social?

The searcher can see that one user has given the first search result a +1, and can click on the +1 button themselves to recommend any of the search results.

If you have a public Google profile, “Google +1″ is a new feature that can be enabled on your account.  Essentially a clone of Facebook’s “Like” button, +1 is an attempt by Google to harness social search, an elusive concept that purports to improve one’s search results by factoring in the opinions and preferences of one’s social contacts.

Google +1 allows a user to recommend Web pages by clicking on the +1 button next to the site after conducting a search.  There are further plans to have Web sites include the +1 button on actual sites, much like Facebook’s increasingly ubiquitous Like button.  If the feature is enabled and the user is logged into his Google account, search results will show relevant pages that the user’s contacts have given the +1 approval to.

Google’s motivation for providing this service is somewhat self-serving: by gathering even more information on user behavior and preferences, the company will be able to further refine its targeted advertising.  In theory, there should also be a benefit for the user, as more relevant search results are elevated as other users, specifically one’s contacts, recommend them.  Additionally, the new feature may help to clamp down on Web spam in search results, by pushing relevant and useful results higher in the search results.

Improving search is critical because unsuccessful searches represent a huge and costly problem; ca. 50% of all searches end in failure, and of those searches that the knowledge worker believes to have succeeded, a further 50% fail because they result in the knowledge worker unknowingly using incorrect or out of date information.  Searching also takes up ca. 10% of the knowledge workers’ day, representing a significant consumption of time.

The ability of +1 to improve search results is not yet clear, and may be severely limited by the relatively small number of people who have public Google accounts and who choose to participate.  Facebook has had success with its “Like” feature but the company also has a huge user base (600 million as of January 2011), which has allowed it to export the “Like” metaphor around the Web.

It is important to note that there are virtually no privacy controls with +1.  Sites that a user gives approval to are viewable by anyone, because the feature requires a user to have a public Google profile.  This means users must keep in mind that there is a record of their +1 sites, which is accessible via a tab in their public Google profile.  Even Facebook, for all its failings, has privacy settings to prevent a completely unknown person from seeing a history of a given user’s “Likes.”

In what appears to be a complete lack of foresight on the part of Google, the +1 feature was announced on the same day that the company settled its privacy complaint with the FCC over its Buzz service, which drew outrage for automatically connecting people based on a user’s Gmail contact list.  While +1 is different in the sense that users must have opted in to a public Google profile, some lingering privacy concerns remain.

Similar to Google’s previous lackluster entries into social software that include Buzz, Lively, Wave, and Orkut, +1 is a gamble for Google.  We as consumers and knowledge workers hope that it can improve Google’s search results and decrease the search failure rate, but if past social experiments by Google are any indication, it may be a challenge to get +1 to catch on.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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