The search industry, including our very own 15miles blog, has been buzzing this week with commentary on Google’s “Search Plus Your World” release, which is being touted as one of the most radical changes to search engine results pages ever made. In a nutshell, users signed into their Google+ accounts, while searching, are likely to see a blend of both personal and public content displayed in the results. The personal content, being primarily things shared by you or your connections in Google+, is being said to be given some priority over public content, which can include typical website organic listings, content from Twitter, Facebook, or other such sources. The search giant says these changes are in response to user feedback wanting search results to be more personal.
The outcry this week has been tremendous. Twitter was among the first to respond, and seems to encompass much of the opinion that I am seeing out there, emailing the following statement to the press:
“For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results anytime they wanted to find something on the Internet.
Often, they want to know more about world events and breaking news. Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million Tweets every day on virtually every topic. As we’ve seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter; as a result, Twitter accounts and Tweets are often the most relevant results.
We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users.”
Interestingly, Twitter did not renew an agreement with Google in the summer of last year, which made it’s content less prevalent in Google’s search results anyways.
More recently, the NY Times reported that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a research and advocacy group on internet privacy, has sent a letter to the FTC, asking them to investigate whether the new product violates the terms of a privacy settlement in which Google was penalized for privacy violations within its Buzz social network.
In what might be an unpopular opinion at the moment, I will venture to state that much of the outcry is stemming from a fear of change, and that Google’s “Search Plus Your World” feature is actually not that different from what other social networks do as far as content personalization.
Considering that the integration of personalized results appears to only those users who are signed into their Google+ accounts, we may need to separate Google the search engine vs. Google the social network in exploring the change. Google the search engine is not any different for those users who aren’t signed in. Google the social network isn’t doing anything different than what Twitter and Facebook are doing. When we log into Twitter, we don’t see Google or Facebook results being displayed, even if perhaps they are more relevant on trending topics. We see a tweet stream from those we follow, and occasionally promoted tweets to catch our interest in something new. Similarly, when we log into Facebook, we don’t see Tweets or Google results. We see the streams on our wall, content that we follow on Facebook, and often times ads… from advertisers who place through Facebook, and Facebook alone. Similarly, Google the social network, is giving priority to its own content that originates with what it’s users have shared.
The challenge in this scenario, is separating the search engine from the social network. Facebook was always a social network, first for college kids only, and then a wider audience. Twitter was always a platform for user originated content sharing. Whereas Google was founded under a mission of organizing the world’s information, and that’s what it is known for today. So the idea that it’s becoming something different is scary to many, particularly based on the amount of information that it has stored.
From a user perspective, the outcry to Google’s latest feature seems to be a negative response to change. Not at all dissimilar to some of the backlash Facebook received for its Timeline format rollout. It’s a different organization of content than users were used to, and therefore, initially uncomfortable for some.
Understandably, a company the size of Google, will be more formally investigated amidst the buzz, and I leave the anti-trust or legal rulings to the experts.