social search skepticism

Last summer, there was a dust-up between several high-profile “web 2.0” personalities that made for interesting reading. It started with Robert Scoble, who created a three-part video essay provacatively titled “Why Mahalo, TechMeme, and Facebook are going to kick Google’s butt in four years“. Scoble is obsessed with the idea that search engine optimization (SEO) is poisoning the well of search and that adding the “social” element will magically improve relevance. Dave Winer had a fairly succinct rebuttal, Danny Sullivan took issue with Scoble’s explicit equating of SEO with spam, and Rand Fishkin steps through Scoble’s arguments and fact-checks it to oblivion.

Overall, I came away from the fracas convinced that social networking is not some magic bullet and the problems of “how do I find information” and “who do I want to interact with” to be wholly separate ones. I like a walled garden for my identity-driven personal and professional interactions, but I also want to wander in the wild when need be. It’s the same reason I am skeptical of “personalized search” services like Google’s own “Web History” initiative. It’s not the privacy issues that worry me, but rather the imposed limitation on what my search results are based on what my search results were in the past. Why should I assume that for a given search, the most relevant results will necessarily be related to the searches I previously made? Presumably I search for something based on a need for new information I do not currently possess.

The same argument applies to “social search” initiatives like Delver, recently praised by RWW as “more personal and meaningful to users than a generic search using ‘normal’ search engine.” Why is a filter derived from my social graph any guarantee of more relevance to my query?

If anything, the onus on the user is to craft a better query; to that end Google offers an advanced set of search operators that provide tremendous power and flexibility. Overall, every search is unique, and no amount of personalization or social networking is going to change that fact. If anything, the right approach is to allow a search to stimulate new searches; ie ask new questions rather than spoonfeed me old answers.

2 thoughts on “social search skepticism”

  1. I must be getting old because I’m not a fan of the newfangled video blogging stuff. I much prefer a good skimmable long block of text to watching a half hour video.

    Anyway, I tried Mahalo for a handful of searches (biology terms, electronic components, programming questions), only a couple had any extra results and those ended up being completely spam (or maybe paid ads?). Looks like it’d be great if I wanted to know about Lindsay Lohan though.

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