Social Search Fools Gold

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These days, it seems that technology pundits and enthusiasts can’t clamor loudly enough for social network signals to be included in search engine ranking results. It isn’t hard to see why. Your friends probably like a lot of the same things that you do. That is why they are your friends. Furthermore, the people you follow on social networks like Twitter or Tumblr likely have similar interests. That’s why follow them.

Social search fools goldSo, when it comes time for you to search for things like music, movies, fashion and art, adding input from your social friends can only make your search results more accurate.

In fact, my friends can provide invaluable insights into what exactly I’m searching for when I check Google for things like how to turn off the low tire pressure light in my Honda CRV, or how to insulate a garage, or find a hypoallergenic furnace filter, or what hotels and areas of Costa Rica offer the best rainforest hiking, or how to make pancakes that taste like the ones I get in restaurants.

Wait. What?

Actually, that isn’t true, at all.

In fact, none of my friends drive a CRV, most of them don’t know the first thing about furnaces, none of them have ever been to Costa Rica, and I don’t think any of them cares about pancakes as much as I do.

As it turns out, my friends and the people I follow on Twitter do have a lot of common interests, just not about the things I actually search for.

The Referral Mythology

When I was a financial planner, every sales meeting I was ever forced to attend, would speak to the power of referrals. It was true. When it comes to something like choosing someone to help with your personal finance decisions, referrals are one of the top ways people like to find someone to work with. It is also why I failed to develop a thriving financial planning practice. Even though I was good, there just were never enough people that knew about me for me to have enough clients.

It also exposes a critical weakness in the concept that friends are the best source of information about certain topics. Take my clients, for example. For a great majority of them, I was their first, and only financial planner. Many of them offered glowing referrals about me to their friends. However, what were they basing that on? I never stole their money, and I certainly did my best, but without a comparison, how would they know if I was “good” or not?

Likewise, if none of my friends have ever been to Costa Rica how would anything they say on Twitter or Facebook make my search results more relevant? In many cases, social signals for search will simply be blank. My friends without Hondas probably won’t tweet much about them. In the case of Cost Rica, however, those social signals will actually make my search results WORSE. Many of my friend are coffee drinkers, and many of them have, from time to time, mentioned Costa Rican blends of coffee. Some of them may have referenced a news item, or decided that they wanted to go to Machu Picchu some time based on some pictures they saw. Never mind that Machu Picchu is in Peru, not Cost Rica.

In other words, on how many topics would your social circle have better information than your average Wikipedia article? On how many topics would you rather have their insight than Google’s untainted opinion? Of the topics that your friend’s would be a good source of information, how many do youactually search for?

When you search for things like music, fashion and art, do social signals really help?

Does Google really need your friend Connie’s tweets to get you to the homepage when you search for How I Met Your Mother, or Beyonce, or even the website for that new nightclub? Aren’t these the things that Google is already good at?

The Common Interests Fallacy

Many people assume that because you follow certain people that your common interests mean that their tweets and Facebook posts, and the like could improve your search results. However, that all depends upon a fallacy about what people with common interests search for.

Consider an avid photographer. He likely follows several other photographers, both professionals and hobbyists on various social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Using their social signals can only make his search results better. However, would such a person really search in a way that it would matter?

An avid photographer already knows of dozens of photography websites that he trusts and uses regularly. Likewise, he probably already likes to buy camera equipment from Amazon, or B&H Photo, or Adorama, or maybe a great local camera shop. He probably subscribes to a handful of photography magazines, and has a shelf full of photography books.

Given all that, when would he actually perform the kind of search that social signals would improve?

He likely wouldn’t search for new camera reviews, he would just go to his usual sites. He wouldn’t search for tips from random Google suggested websites over checking in with trusted members of a photography forum.

Just like everyone else, this person is most likely to search precisely because he has no connections, no one to follow, no friends to trust.

If that’s the case, then why is everyone so hot about adding social signals to search results?

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