Q&A: Google pushes Social Search despite Facebook gap

Once viewed as tools for posting trivial content on the Web, social networking and social media sites have evolved as bona fide sources of information publishing and sharing, forcing search engine providers to increasingly factor them into their services. Google isn't an exception: it launched a formal Social Search component to its search engine in 2009 and has updated it regularly since then. With Social Search, people can link their Google accounts to their social media accounts and have Google incorporate relevant content from their social circle into search results.

Google sees a lot of potential to expand Social Search's scope and increase its usefulness. Last month, for example, Social Search results gained a more prominent placement in the results page, moving from a default spot at the bottom to the main list. Currently, Social Search only taps content that is already publicly available on the Web, highlighting to users when that content has been shared by one of their social contacts. This means that Facebook content is largely absent from Social Search, a glaring omission by all accounts. At the same time, rival engine Bing, thanks to a years-long and wide-ranging partnership between Microsoft and Facebook, is getting access to valuable data from Facebook's Like button that is currently not available to Google. The problem is compounded by the fact that as Facebook's popularity and power have grown exponentially in recent years, so has the animosity between it and Google.

IDG News Service recently had a chance to chat with Mike Cassidy, a Google product management director overseeing Social Search, about the service's goals, opportunities, challenges and plans. An edited version of the interview follows:

What is the current goal of Google's Social Search service? We launched Social Search in 2009 and have made steady progress. The relevance of search results increasingly depends on more than just the content on a Web page. It also depends on the relationship between the searcher and the person who created or shared that page. In many cases, the mere fact that someone you know created a page or "tweeted" about it makes it more relevant by definition for you. The other thing is that recommendations from friends are among the most powerful in the world. We're just trying to automate that with Google Social Search.

We're also trying to organize the information created and shared by your friends. There are tons of sites where people share great content. Over 100 million times a day people share or create content on the Web, whether through Flickr, or Twitter or questions on Quora. We want to find that information out there and make it available to the users whenever it's relevant to the query they're doing.

Google Social Search only indexes content that's publicly available on the Web. What can Social Search access and index and surface from Facebook currently? Because much of the content on Facebook isn't publicly crawlable and isn't publicly available on the Web, there's generally not content from there in Social Search. We do include Facebook profiles that are public and links from Google Profiles to Facebook profiles.

So if I have indicated on my regular Facebook profile that I like this sports team and that restaurant, can Social Search see that and factor it into my search relevance? No, because those pages aren't publicly accessible nor crawlable on the Web.

It's my understanding that some smaller, niche search companies provide Facebook search, letting Facebook users search through their Wall postings and Facebook content in general. Why doesn't Google do this too? Google fundamentally is about indexing and accessing the world's public information and making it easier for users to find it depending on what queries they're doing. So that's the key for us: it has to be publicly accessible and crawlable.

But is there an opportunity for search engines like Google to help people search through private data in their social media and social networking accounts that has accumulated over the years and in many cases is hard to find and search through? I understand what you're saying, but we don't talk about future products or unannounced stuff at Google.

Where do you see Google Social Search in a year or 18 months from now that would make it even better? There are tens of thousands of sites out there that have publicly crawlable information on hundreds or thousands of different categories of topics and all of those we hope to bring into Social Search. We're even getting approached daily by different people who have public content saying: "Hey, can you include our stuff in Social Search?" It's great for recommendations and a variety of things.

Do you have to manually configure the Social Search engine or crawler to work with a specific social media and social networking service, so that it can look for stuff in specific sites? Or is it a more automated process? In the initial phases, there is some wrap up work where we're making sure the formats for various sites maps into our Social Search engine. That's why initially we have [a handful of social media sites] working. Over time, the process will become more broad like you're indicating. But to match formats now, we're taking it a few steps at a time.

We're at the point where it's a continuous, ongoing process [of enhancement]. You'll see over the rest of this year a number of improvements to Social Search that I think [users] will be excited about.

What are the usage metrics telling you about what people are taking advantage of more or in any unexpected ways so far? I wish I could tell you the metrics, but I can't, but they're very good. It has exceeded our expectations.

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