Google Revamps Search Results To Feature Personal and Social Content

1/10/12Follow @wroush

Google is changing its mind about what’s relevant.

In a sweeping technical overhaul that will start to go into effect today, the search giant is altering the way it ranks search results to highlight content that users have shared, or that has been shared with them. If you’re logged into Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), links to this personal and social content—such as photos you’ve uploaded to Google+ and posts shared by the people in your Google+ circles—will now appear at or near the top of search result pages for the appropriate keywords.

For example, if you’ve ever shared photos of your cat Mittens on Google+ and you type “Mittens” into the Google search box, those images are likely to be among the top results, alongside links to Web pages about winter wear.

The personalized results won’t include information users have shared outside of Google’s ecosystem—say, status updates on Facebook or photos on Flickr (or, notably, tweets on Twitter). And users will have the option to turn off the new personalized results if they find that the information is getting in the way of their routine Web searches. But with the changes, Google is betting that most people who use its flagship search engine will prefer to see information they or their friends have created or shared over pages published by faraway people they’ve never met.

“Relevance is what we do,” says Sagar Kamdar, group product manager for search at Google’s Mountain View, CA, headquarters. “It’s our bread and butter. We are blending this content to optimize what we see as relevance.”

A mock preview of personalized search shows results both for chikoo, a fruit that grows in India and Pakistan, and Chikoo, a dog belonging to Google Fellow Amit Singhal.

Which is to say that if Google’s new algorithms have some reason to think you’re actually looking for mittens rather than Mittens, your kitty might get demoted. “If you have a personal result that is not as good as the Web result, the personal result will be visible in the appropriate place on the search result page,” Kamdar explains.

Alongside the personalization features, Google is making it easier to find information about people you know, in part by changing Google Instant to show links to the profiles of people in your Google+ circles. Google Instant is the technology rolled out in 2010 that predicts the search keywords you want as you type a query. With today’s changes, entering the first few letters of the name of someone in your Google+ circles will be sufficient to surface their Google+ profile in the autocomplete list.

In addition, Google will do more to direct users to content from people they may not know personally, but might like to follow via social media. The names of prominent Google+ users will be included in the Google Instant autocomplete predictions—type “Trey R,” for example, and you’ll see a link to the Google+ profile for Trey Ratcliff, a professional photographer who has made extensive use of Google+ photo albums. And in the right column of Google search result pages—the area normally reserved for keyword-based advertisements—the company will begin promoting the profiles of prominent Google+ users associated with certain search queries.

In the example Google Fellow Amit Singhal shared in a blog post announcing the changes today, a search for “music” summons Google+ pages for Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, and Snoop Dogg. (Google didn’t make it clear in press briefings whether individuals can pay to have their profiles promoted in this space.) [Update 6:30 pm PT 1/10/12: A Google spokesperson told Xconomy on Tuesday that profiles are selected for this space algorithmically, with no paid component.]

Google is calling the whole basket of new features Search plus Your World. (I’ll wager $20 that Internet wags will quickly abbreviate this to SPYW and pronounce it “spew.”)

In many ways, the changes build on innovations such as Social Search, a feature the company introduced as a Google Labs experiment in 2009, and the +1 button, introduced last March as a way for Google users to recommend content to their friends and contacts.

But those technologies were used to alter search result pages only in subtle ways—and they predated Google+, the Facebook-like media sharing system that Google introduced last summer. Now that some 62 million people have joined Google+ and started adding one another to their circles, the company is amassing its own social graph—and it’s finally putting that web of connections to work to make search results feel more human and social.

“The reason we’re doing this is that the search result page has been pretty faceless,” says Kamdar. “We have done a couple of things over the years to make social search better, like the +1 button. This is another step in that process of trying to make search more personal and useful to you.”

That word “faceless” is telling. It’s really no exaggeration to portray Search plus Your World as Google’s latest response to the existential threat posed by Facebook. Americans already spend more time using Facebook than they spend on Google.com, Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Blogger, and all of Google’s other properties combined. With the social-networking juggernaut poised to pass the billion-user mark this year, many Internet watchers have begun to wonder whether social sharing could eventually displace algorithmic search as the main way Internet users will get news and information. Such a shift would obviously imperil Google’s enormous advertising revenues.

After Google fumbled earlier social projects like Wave and Buzz, it plunged massive resources into Google+, which initially went by the code name Emerald Sea. It was even reported that Google CEO Larry Page tied 25 percent of employee bonuses in 2011 to the effort’s success. Once Google+ proved popular with users, in other words, there was zero chance that Google engineers wouldn’t use the rich network of relationships embedded there to keep tweaking the company’s core revenue engine—that is, its search result pages and the keyword-based ads they carry.

But this was no simple matter, according to Kamdar. Making sure that personal and social content is quickly ingested into Google’s massive Web index, and then serving up links to that content on demand in a way that’s customized according to each user’s social profile, is an “incredibly complicated and sophisticated problem,” he says. “This is one of our biggest technological achievements in quite some time.”

Yet when I suggested that Search plus Your World was an inevitable follow-on to Google+, Kamdar took issue with my interpretation, saying the company is just following where users lead. “I think Google is a very agile and fast organization, and we’re constantly seeing what we should do next,” he says. “Many of the things here are just logical outcomes of how the products are being used. As we saw more people posting photos on Google+, for example, we said ‘Wouldn’t it be useful to surface them on search pages?’ We adapt to our user base and try to do what’s best for them.”

It would seem to be only a matter of time before Google goes beyond Web results and images and begins to incorporate other kinds of personal content it knows about into Search plus Your World, such as your documents on Google Docs or the songs you’ve stored on Google Music.

But if you decide, despite Google’s best efforts, that Search plus Your World isn’t best for you, there are two ways to sidestep it. One is a new “toggle,” a pair of buttons in the upper right corner of each search result page that will allow you to see results with or without personal content. You can also change your overall search settings to include or exclude personal results by default. The new level of personalization, in other words, includes the ability to opt out of the personalized suggestion features entirely.

“It’s the ultimate level of control,” Kamdar says. But he doubts many people will opt out. “We have done a lot of testing and analysis, and we think we are at the right balance.”

Kamdar says Google is rolling out the new Search plus Your World features in stages. The features should become visible to everyone using Google.com in English by the end of the day Thursday.

Xconomy goes the extra mile to bring you the deepest coverage of tech trends. Compare this story to:

Google Embeds Social Directly Into Search (But by Social, It Means Google+) (AllThingsD)

Google search gets its biggest change in a decade with a dose of Google+ (VentureBeat)

They Did It: Google Personalizes Search & It Is Not Evil (ReadWriteWeb)

Google Merges Search and Google+ Into Social Media Juggernaut (Mashable)

Google Fuses Google+ Into Search — And There Are Bigger Changes Afoot (TechCrunch)

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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