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What the Heck is Social Search?

Kevin M. Ryan
What the Heck is Social Search? Kevin M. Ryan

Ask any industry guru about the hottest topics in search this year and the buzz words "social search" will inevitably creep into the conversation-- it has been called the next big breakthrough in search. Social search has many definitions, and the origin of the term seems to be a debate in today's new-buzz-word-each-day techno language.

Google has been attempting to tap into the world of consumer information sorting habits with its release late last year of Google Base. Yahoo! is betting the future farm on expanding beyond ranking criteria from web masters by shifting more control to users with Web 2.0. Then you have independents like Eurekster observing and collecting data anonymously with its brand of social search called Swickis.

However you might be referring to it, social search, community search or behaviorally targeted search, the idea of consumers entering data into search results has far-reaching implications for advertising models and how users perceive -- and ultimately use -- their information resources.
What's wrong with the search box?
Current popular ranking methodologies use the world of website owners to evaluate the popularity and relevant value of other websites. In other words, site owners cast a vote as to which site they think is important, and you reap the benefits of their evaluations.

Sound a little sideways? It is, but it is an enormous improvement over the simple index and return technologies used in the pre 1990s dotcom days. Sites were indexed and ranked according to keywords or tags placed in their site code.

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective), site owners and search optimizers abused the tagging principles en masse by loading irrelevant keywords for the sole purpose of getting better rankings. Those early days of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) were certainly interesting ones, but they didn't do much for users.

Search engines were so inefficient that we needed graphic advertising served alongside keyword search results to help us find what we needed -- a concept that has been all but abandoned in today's search world -- due to more complex ranking systems and better ways to advertise alongside search. 

The community concept
Many years and billions of dollars later, search and online targeting have evolved. We have begun to view audiences as behavioral segments and have the ability to connect with our targets in ways previously thought unimaginable.

Search is still the simplest way to reach out to an audience in the user-driven environment. Technology is a beautiful thing, and allowing advertisers to capture an audience while seeking information is one of the most effective ways to make a brand connection.

Information -- and the subsequent assigned value of said information in the eyes of those in the search box driver's seat -- is the foundation of what we might call a social or community search concept today.

Modern search communities allow us to view or use which sites others deem important. Other technologies allow users to designate their own web content. Most are gathering data in beta, using trial and error to help build a more efficient experience. At least one has been perfecting its technology in one form or another since 1998.

Moving beyond the page rank
Search is poised to evolve beyond the page rank again, and several companies are competing to build the next best search experience. The big three (Google, Yahoo and MSN) are applying new technologies, and at least one, MSN, allows advertisers to segment target searchers.

Yahoo has a new spin on tagging with Web 2.0, allowing the community concept to expand by sharing and saving bookmarks with colleagues and friends, but it still relies on consumers to make their own tags. Yahoo has made a big step forward, but requiring action on the part of a user by sharing and identifying information creates an additional step in the process that has not been popular with audiences on a large scale.

Adding tags and sharing sites requires (albeit limited) thought and action on the part of the user. Of course, the tagging concept also opens the door to abuse, but history has taught us the more you require a user to do in completing a simple activity like conducting a search, the less likely they will be to complete the search.

In short, as marketers and content owners, the only activity we want users engaging with is the interaction with the search box. And we want them engaging with search beyond the one or two word phrases they use now. So if tagging and sharing aren't the answer, what is?

The buzz cloud: Swickis
Searching content within a destination site is a good first glimpse into what works. While major search brands are exploring data and even reaching back to the tagging concepts, Eurekster is taking a different approach. In existence in one form or another since 1998, Eurekster hopes to use search activity, passively and anonymously to help improve the search experience.

The Swicki concept is painfully simple: an easy-to-implement search application that requires no active participation on the part of site visitors. Search results change as each user moves in and makes a query. Users don't change the listings-- they help group them more efficiently.

If you happen to be searching on the Popular Science site, Friendster or one of the Community Connect sites like Asian Avenue.com you may have noticed a connected group of terms near your search results.

The Swicki Buzz Cloud is appearing on more and more sites, allowing users to view popular and effective searches from like-minded individuals.

It seems like a good idea, but how do we make money with it?

Monetizing your Swicki
Site owners begin by seeding their Swicki with keywords, and the users take it from there.

The genius in using a buzz cloud is that it requires little or no thought on the part of the searcher. Using an ASP model, Eurekster's Swicki application allows a publisher better to monetize content-related search and existing ad models.

There are no privacy concerns, since no personal data is collected. Publishers have control over the layout and brand of search activity, since there is no Eurekster logo attached to the application. It does not require a user to register. It allows a publisher to filter results that may not be relevant or perhaps might create competitive content situations.

Site owners know that providing an effective way to find useful information creates loyalty in its user base. The side benefit for publishers lies in the ability to leverage existing assets and also to let advertisers see higher click and conversion rates from satisfied users.

The next generation of search
Relying on the inherent good nature in people is a Pollyannaish approach to refining the search experience. People may have good intentions, and a precious few may exhibit altruistic actions in other areas of life, but when it comes to search, people are lazy followed closely by malicious when the opportunity arises.

According to Eurekster, several improvements are in the works for the next generation of Swicki, including better ways to incorporate geographic relevance into the search activity and improvements to leveraging audio and video assets.

Whatever the future may hold for social search or community based search technologies, one thing is certain. Any technology that can balance efficiency with encouraging users to spend more time searching and finding -- instead of tagging and ranking -- is a winner in my book.

Additional resources:
Google Base

Yahoo MY Web 2.0

A new entry into customized search

Kevin Ryan is search editor for iMedia Connection. Read full bio.

Viral marketing works because people trust the opinions of their peers. Author and industry expert George Silverman says, "Word of mouth is the most honest advertising medium there is. People don't want to hurt their friends and family and colleagues with bad information."

Comments and recommendations coming from peers will be perceived as reliable even if the information slyly originates from a marketer.

A successful viral marketing campaign also helps consumers cut through the online clutter. With so many advertisers vying for the same customers, a personal recommendation from a friend or colleague will help direct your online audience to your site without much additional effort like a banner or paid search advertisement.

A prime example of how much attention can be drawn from a viral campaign is Burger King's "Subservient Chicken." This campaign was developed to promote Burger King's Tender Crisp Sandwich by creating a microsite where users can type in a command (e.g., sit, fall, take a nap) to a man in chicken suit who will do it on command. Using the tagline "Chicken the way you like it," the campaign created 10 times the publicity and awareness of a traditional campaign, said the Viral Advertising Association.

To get people to pay attention to your brand through viral marketing efforts, the campaign needs to be interactive. For example, Domino's ran a campaign where customers could create their own pizza, name it and then have it delivered to their homes. The interactivity of this promotion not only gave customers something to talk about, it also gave marketers data on which to benchmark the success of their campaign.

In addition, viral plans ultimately need to be worth talking about. Quiksilver produced a video made specifically for YouTube that shows a group of surfers throwing explosives into a lake to generate waves, on which they later surf. This is something you definitely don't see everyday. The video has well over 2 million hits from viewers who are arguably Quiksilver's main consumers. On top of generating views and customers, the video also reinforces Quiksilver as an extreme, adventurous and outdoorsy brand.

While creating conversation and buzz is fantastic, all the publicity will not do advertisers any good if it doesn't relate back to their brands. For example, I was forwarded an interactive widget that I spent the better part of an hour using, but by the end of the day, I could not tell you what brand was behind it. This is ultimately a failure because, while the campaign got my attention and my time, there was no subsequent call-to-action or brand attached to benefit from the interaction.

Since the internet already has platforms established to both spread your campaign and gauge its effectiveness, marketers should start here when planning their campaigns. Blogs, social networking sites, video aggregators and microsites are ideal places to launch campaigns because they will be highly visible, searchable and distributable. When using social sites like Facebook and MySpace, a marketer can tap into pre-existing fan groups and use them to promote their campaign. In a similar manner, marketers can inform the blogging community about the promotion to get them involved in getting the word out. Since the main objective of a viral campaign is to encourage others to talk about your brand, ideally marketers need to get those who are already a part of the online conversation to be their evangelists.

If this is accomplished, a marketer just needs to monitor the buzz and not let the publicity go to waste. Using the buzz-giant Apple Computers as my hypothetical example, if Apple successfully creates noise around a scheduled product launch, it needs to follow through and provide a product worthy of the hype. Otherwise, future publicity could be centered around how the last launch was anticlimactic.

Viral marketing is the oldest and most trusted form of advertising, and the internet is a modern-day digital watering hole. There has always been a central location where people gather just to be social and talk about anything and everything (the general store, downtown, campus union, etc.). Instead of passing along recommendations and criticisms in person, we use the internet to spread the word about what we came across during our day. Whether it's a mass joke email or an online geography quiz, the beauty of creating an online viral campaign is that the conversation channel is already open. Before, there was a delay in the spreading of information. A person had to dial the phone or meet up with friends, but now people can speak to whomever will listen via the internet, through blogs and social networking pages.

While viral campaigns can be extremely successful in creating brand awareness, they should be used sparingly and strategically. Wikipedia cites that a satisfied customer tells three people about their experience while their dissatisfied counterpart tells 11. Marketers need to keep this in mind because if the campaign does not succeed, consumers will be quick to let everyone know about it. Since there is always the risk of a backlash, monitoring consumer perceptions is imperative in staying ahead of buzz campaigns. The last thing a viral marketer wants to generate for brands is an outbreak of bad publicity.

In our parents' generation, often the corporate psychology was that the company took care of its own and trust and loyalty were valued by both boss and worker. So what's changed? And is this new trend here to stay? I have heard plenty of reasons and excuses from people as to why they left their jobs, but rarely do I hear people leaving jobs they "love." In fact, it's difficult recruiting happy people because they're too busy doing their job. Although in my opinion, happy people are the only ones worth engaging. Gratified people are loyal employees who outperform their unsatisfied peers. One of my clients, let's call her Patricia, states, "The responsibility of attrition rests 90% with employers. How can you keep employees if you can't do simple things, like acknowledge employee contributions?"

Recently, I recruited a sports marketing expert from an agency to the client side. His background was stellar on several levels: skills, background, great presentation, and four to five years at each of his prior positions. He also loved his job, peers, and boss. They truly valued him as a person and as a highly skilled marketer. It wasn't easy to convince him to go on the interview, never mind to accept my client's offer. Of course, my client knew from his resume that his past behavior demonstrated loyalty and accountability. After the interviews and a generous offer, my candidate couldn't commit to the offer until he spoke face to face with the CEO of his company. In the end, even his CEO told him that the job offer was too good to pass up. After all, it was a big jump in responsibilities and a great career move. But you have to admire this gentleman's sense of loyalty and commitment to his job, clients, and peers.

Bouncing from company to company has a lot to do with the lack of a strong corporate culture, blended work/life philosophy, and leadership. When the CEO and leadership team are not emotionally connected to employees, people usually feel undervalued and underappreciated. Which is why, when interviewing many professionals, I get a sense that they lack emotional connection to their places of work.

When speaking with leaders from the top places to work, I hear over and over again that their turnover is basically non-existent. It's not just the fabulous meals, gym memberships, and yes, believe it or not, nap rooms, but a strong sense of caring and purpose in which employees might think, "I matter," "I have a purpose," and "if I leave the company I will be missed."

Unfortunately, most people work for paycheck companies and not for the top 1% of the best places to work. The result of not having a strong culture, leadership, and a blended work/life philosophy is job hopping, and it's an epidemic.

Furthermore, to add to the dilemma, CEOs are under an incredible amount pressure to "outperform" last year's numbers. They tend to quickly hire and fire marketers and sellers who are expected to come up with innovative marketing and sales plans that can't be realized. The results are poor ROI and poor employee retention. This affects entire teams and departments, because employees feel unsure of the direction of the company and their perceptions are that shareholders and investors are more important than job security.

There is an interesting paradigm shift going on today. The Baby Boomers, and Gen Yers, who are the current leaders, don't understand what drives Millennials. Managers evaluate success by KPIs and ROIs, and the millennials care about time off, being valued, and giving to their favorite causes. Most of us are not on the same page.

Why is job hopping a problem?

Hiring managers look at a candidate's resume as a pattern of accountability and tenure. There have been a few times in the last 20 years that lack of tenure was understood by hiring managers, considering the dot.com burst, the tragedy of 9/11, and the Great Recession. Other than these significant events in recent history, managers look negatively at someone who leaves jobs quickly. In most fields, multiple stays of two years or less will look like job hopping. Particularly for mid-level to senior jobs, most hiring managers are looking for at least a few stays of four or five years or more.

Savvy interviewers believe that the best predictor of how someone will behave in the future, is how they've behaved in the past. So if someone has a history of leaving jobs relatively quickly, hiring managers will assume there's a good chance they won't last in a new position. Since employers are generally hoping that anyone they hire will stay for at least a few years, a resume that lacks longevity is a red flag.

In fact, according to a survey last year from the recruiting software company Bullhorn, 39 percent of recruiters and hiring managers say that a history of job hopping is the single biggest obstacle for job seekers.

Having one short job stint on your resume is not a concern of hiring managers, it only becomes problematic when it's a pattern and looks like your typical behavior. Of course if you keep going to positions that aren't for you, I would start looking introspectively at these choices and patterns. I've had candidates who always blame the companies and never take ownership of their failures. Your career choices and reasons for leaving will raise concerns for prospective employers.

To be clear, job hopping means that you've had multiple short-term stays that weren't designed to be short-term stays. Therefore, short-term internships, temp work, contract jobs, campaign work, and anything else designed to be short-term from the start doesn't look like job hopping. Just make sure that your resume makes it clear that these positions were designed to be short-term from the start, by noting "contract" or consulting.

Of course, there will be people who think hiring managers who are prejudiced against hoppers are being unfair, since companies are offering their employees less loyalty than ever before. A double standard does exist. Employers, leaders, and employees need to address the issues, but in reality, the companies hold the keys to your success, so think hard before leaving your current situation and taking the next "best" job because you could be judged and labeled a job hopper.

What's the outlook for the future?

There is hope that we can change the job hopping culture. At the center of an effective work-life balance are two key everyday concepts that are relevant to each of us: daily accomplishments and satisfaction. Impressing these two concepts takes us most of the way to defining a positive blended work/life culture.

Feeling accomplished and satisfied answers the big question: Why? Why do you want a better income, a new house, the kids through college, to do a good job today, or to come to work at all? When we feel pride, satisfaction, and happiness, we enjoy a sense of wellbeing. Successful people look for these feelings and attributes all day and every day. In other words, their life during the day should be just as fulfilling as their time outside of the office with their family and friends. When leaders transform their corporate cultures and invest in their employee brands, loyalty will be the rage. And you never know, a gold watch may be in your future.

Erika Weinstein is the founder and CEO at eTeam Executive Search.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Businessman walking on the street with a lot of luggage" image via Shutterstock.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Felix NC

2008, June 12

We strongly believe in Social Search and we are developing a new concept named Xoost. We are looking for beta testers to test our features and improve the product. Here's the pitch, thank you.

Xoost - Your Social Search

Do you Search the Web for your favorite topics and you would like to share your search skills with your friends? Xoost is the only place for you. With Xoost you will web search what you like most, your search stream will be continuously added to your profile, and you will socialize with other Xoosters on the basis of common search interests. Your searches and related websites will be automatically stored in your account and you will be able to access them anytime. In addition, you can share your Xoost searches with your friends on other networks such as Facebook or Twitter and you can tag or delete any search and related website as you like most. Xoost is simple, viral, scalable, enjoyable and is currently in private beta test: join the beta if you like the concept.