Social Search: Is it Real Yet?

Paid Search gets the lion's share of online ad revenues and is growing faster than any other interactive marketing channel, so when people start talking about the next big thing in search, it's time to talk about whether or not that new thing is real and how it might impact the multi-billion dollar yearly SEM spend.

Ask a million idiots a question and you are likely to get a million idiotic answers. Social search, a critical component of the Web 2.0 emerging media platform extravaganza, is either the second coming of Google or the next Microsoft Bob.

The last time I wrote about social search I received more than a few ideas from iMedia readers about the future of user-based search effectiveness and link quality control. Major search providers and start ups are vying to jumpstart the next big web evolution, and controversy is surrounding the ideas reaching adolescence all over the web.

Yahoo has arguably taken the lead with its limited My Web 2.0 release; Microsoft has a number of platforms in the works and has reportedly been seeking some acquisition possibilities, and Google, well, Google is trying on all kinds of social functions.

Principles of idi-ocrity
The idea is actually quite simple in its essence: existing methods of indexing, ranking and delivering content to the user via a search box have been weighed, measured and found wanting.
There is simply too much content to be accurately categorized. The numerous methods of optimization place a precious few that understand the art and science of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) with a decided advantage over the many who don't.

The old answer to the search engine inadequacy question was "advertising tied to search terms," but even that must continue to evolve.

The real problem with search is the lack of relative valuation in connectivity. In other words, one man's Texas Chili Bowl is a great appetizer while another's is a wild Friday night. Wouldn't it be great if your search for chili ingredients only contained links to great recipe sites recommended by like minded people instead of those pesky urban dictionary listings?

The valuable milliseconds you save not clicking on irrelevant links could add precious time to your life.

The theory
If millions of people conducting millions of searches per hour each saved milliseconds the value of internet search would increase exponentially. This concept -- in a nutshell --is precisely why everyone seems to be in love with social search.

But wait, people are stupid
Before I dive into why our society is just not ready for a Gene Roddenberry utopia, we have to face some cold hard facts. While many people are intelligent beings with good intentions and possess the wits to survive in just about any climate, the vast majority don't care enough to spell Star Trek correctly in a search box.

Many search products, including Yahoo's Web 2.0 (opinion queries and personal results), seek to enhance the search experience by answering more difficult questions. And yes,'s wealth of tools does provide a newer better search experience, but there is no remedy for the collective ignorance phenomenon that occurs when humans congregate. When it comes to search, the so-called wisdom of crowds is not readily apparent.

Case in point, take Google's new Image Labeler for a test drive. Users are paired together briefly to help label images in the apparent hope that a consensus among the educated will provide value to everyone.

I labeled what looked like an old man in a wig, "old guy in wig," followed by several attempts to label something that looked like a big molten mountain, "volcano."

In a matter of minutes my unknown partners and I had contributed exactly squat to the development of social media and I got on with my day.

Social abuse
Beta releases like the Image Labeler are designed to use human guinea pigs to work out the bugs-- this much we understand. Yet, as the iMedia readers suggested, there are in fact some really interesting possibilities for social search abuse.

One recommended a software app that blindly creates search query and site recommendation strings to help build equity for one specific site. Another suggested creating expert panels in which panelists were only allowed to rate sites that fall within their area of expertise.

The "expert" models do exist in one form or another and have yet to see any real traction. The conspiracy app is sure to turn a few heads but probably won't pose a threat on a large scale.

Only one question remains in the quest to make social search the next big thing. How will all the positive potential aspects of social search functionality overcome the evil doers and nudniks?

And the winning search is…
Most social search platforms presuppose that users of a like mind will create networks of vastly more relevant content via the search query. They do so successfully but often offer too many types of choices for the user.

Today's winning search mindset of the simple box-and-answer variety provides easy access to (if not the most relevant) content.

Search gaming application and technique will evolve but so will regulation and guidelines. Early abusers will naturally provide some of those guidelines. Remember the old days of black hat search? Before black hat search engine gaming techniques were labeled as such, they were known as best practices.

Early foibles in trusting users will evolve into collectively-regulated relevance engines as we continue to collect more personal information. Conclusive and statistically significant information such as purchase behavior and the sites we consistently visit will become part of our customized universe.

The screen on which this search utopia will appear (or how many screens we'll have at that point) is still up for debate. The interaction will provide simplicity in the form of qualified answers while simultaneously protecting users from the silly, the hopelessly inept and the ill-intentioned.

Additional resources:
What the Heck is Social Search?
SEM Spend Surges

Kevin Ryan is the Chief Executive Officer of Kinetic Results. Read full bio.