In an acknowledgement that some questions may be better answered by a human than a search engine algorithm, Yahoo, Microsoft and others are embracing so-called social search.
Social search generally refers to a Web site or service that relies on the participation of a community to come up with answers to specific questions or to provide links to Web sites or other resources of common interest.
Don't bet on social search usurping the algorithm, say experts. But it's likely social-search answers will provide a strong second option to mathematical results.
"Ultimately, it's likely that a combination of algorithmic search and the various types of social-search systems will fuse into a hybrid that will work really well for satisfying a wide variety of information needs," Search Engine Watch Executive Editor Chris Sherman concluded in a recent blog posting titled "What's the Big Deal With Social Search?"
No doubt, social search has its shortcomings. A site's network of users has to be big enough and include people who are sufficiently competent to maintain quality. Also, skeptics say, companies have toyed with the idea of social search for years, and most efforts have been a disappointment.
"I don't think (social search) is feasible," said Jason Calcanis, general manager of Netscape.com and the co-founder blog publisher Weblogs Inc., which was sold to AOL. "If social search is not significantly better than Google search results, no one is going to use it."
So why are some people now confident about the prospects for social search?
Advocates argue that people are now much more comfortable interacting on the Web. The say social search has its place, particularly in subjective arguments, like what's the best place to eat a steak in downtown Chicago.
And they say a new generation of Web 2.0 companies, whose business models revolve around information exchange, have gained acceptance, particularly among younger Web surfers, making social-search results more reliable.
Jeff Clavier, managing partner of SoftTech VC, said he made a personal investment in social search start-up Kaboodle, but wouldn't say how much. "There is only so much you can achieve with traditional algorithmic search," he said. Social search and collaborative sites "pre-filter the sources of information in a way that makes the relevance of the results higher. They apply a social layer to that."
Collaborating on answers
Social search has its roots in sites like the Open Directory Project, which is billed as "the most comprehensive human-review directory of the Web," and even Yahoo, which started out as a Web directory compiled by human editors.
The category encompasses collaborative directories, such as PreFound.com, as well as shared bookmarking sites, like Yahoo's MyWeb and Delicious. Also included in the category are sites where people tag content to make it easier to organize and find, like Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing site. In addition, there are personalized search sites, like Eurekster, which offers customizeable search engines.
Question-and-answer sites are the most obvious type of social search. On such sites, anyone can post a question and receive answers back, either from experts in the field or any random Internet user motivated enough to respond. Popular sites are Yahoo Answers, Wondir and Answerbag.
Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang saw how successful Yahoo's Knowledge Search sites were when first launched in Korea and Taiwan and approved development and deployment of Yahoo Answers for the United States, where it launched in December 2005, according to Brad Horowitz, vice president of product strategy at Yahoo. "Yahoo Answers allows you to search for something that does not yet exist," he said.
Yahoo Answers is growing fast. The number of users of the free Yahoo Answers site rose from 9.1 million unique U.S. visitors in May to 14.4 million in July, according to comScore Networks.