Google stepped into trouble when it announced yesterday it's personalizing search results with Google+ information.
The move incurred Twitter's wrath and raised the prospect of yet another grueling round of antitrust scrutiny.
But Google had no choice.
It has choices about how exactly to make what it calls Search plus Your World work. Google can change how it presents search results derived from social services. It can change what services it chooses to listen to. It can offer different actions that people can take when seeing social information. It can give people different controls over how exactly their own social content is indexed for later inclusion in search.
But Google can't simply ignore social information. Because--perhaps you may have noticed--social connections are a force that's rebuilding the Internet.
A social Web
In the words of Paul Adams, author of the new book "Grouped" and a former Googler now working at Facebook:
We are moving away from a Web that connects documents together to a Web that connects people together...We are now seeing the things we have done socially for thousands of years move online. The emergence of the social Web is simply the our online world catching up with our offline world...The social Web will grow, become mainstream, and eventually simply be known as the Web.
I agree. (And as an aside, I also found Adams' views on what became Google+ circles very persuasive.)
For Google to ignore this reality would be catastrophic.
The first thing that would happen is that genuinely useful search results would be missing, degrading the quality of Google's prime business. Second, because people will seek out socially influenced information, its absence from Google would lead people to search for it elsewhere.
The most overt example of the social Web is of course social-networking services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. There, humans tell other humans what they think is important, and humans select which other humans to listen to. It's where we spend ever-increasing portions of our time.
Of course, we perform countless non-social activities on the Web, too--streaming a movie, looking up a cookie recipe, learning algebra, buying a bicycle, reserving a hotel room. But even there, social decisions will influence many of those activities.
I think Google has a strong case that search results can improve when they include information published by my social contacts. What Barcelona hotel did my co-worker stay in at last year's Mobile World Congress? Did my sister like that movie? Did my son's teacher recommend that online tutorial?
Today, that sort of social information is often presented online clumsily at best, but in a perfect Internet, it would arrive just as unobtrusively as it does real-world conversations with your friends, family, co-workers, and schoolmates.
Here's where Google is key. People go to Facebook and Twitter to speak their own mind and to listen to whatever is on the minds of the people they follow. But they go to Google search for specific answers. Sure, people will use social networks to ask for buying advice, but that tends to be more a site-facilitated manual process rather than some automated algorithmic magic. Facebook and Twitter seem more interested in inserting ads in our update streams, flagging items they think we might want to see, and telling our contacts what music we're listening to than in becoming all-knowing oracles.
Obtaining social information
One big issue for Google is which social signals and social information Search plus Your World uses. Not coincidentally, Facebook and Twitter results are missing.
No doubt that's because Facebook and Twitter want to be the center of their users' existence, not merely a secondary destination that happens to come up when Google search is the primary one. Who can blame them?
Google's Search plus Your World would benefit from Facebook and Twitter being sources of information, but Google doesn't believe the companies grant permission. "Facebook and Twitter and other services, basically, their terms of service don't allow us to crawl them deeply and store things. Google+ is the only [network] that provides such a persistent service," said Google fellow and search executive Amit Singhal in an interview with longtime search watcher Danny Sullivan. And Facebook's requirements for automated data collection state, "You will not engage in Automated Data Collection without Facebook's express written permission."
Matt Cutts, who leads Google's team to ward off Web spam and who blogs about search quality, took pains today to point out that socially-augmented Google search results uses more sources than just Google+. "Search plus Your World builds on the social search that we launched in 2009, and can surface public content from sites across from the Web, such as Quora, [Facebook's] FriendFeed, LiveJournal, Twitter, and WordPress," Cutts said.
Wait, Twitter? Google had included Twitter data in its real-time search results launched in 2009, but the service disappeared a year and a half later after Google and Twitter didn't renew its deal. But even if Google doesn't index Twitter links directly, it can find them when other pages on the Web link to them.
Google+ in search results
One way that Google socially augments search results is by including information from the searcher's Google+ contacts. That's potentially useful, if done well. Competitively, it doesn't mean much since a person who doesn't use Google+ won't see anything, though it could increase Google+ engagement for lightweight users.
A thornier issue is surfacing Google+ information to people who aren't Google+ users. For example, search results will spotlight Google+ profiles for prominent people. Those Google+ profiles could appear with a search for the person or for subject matter that person discusses.
It's thornier because it comes closer to "tying" or "bundling," in which a company with monopoly power in one market uses that power to extend to another to the detriment of competition. It's not a cut-and-dried matter, though. It's common for dominant tech companies add self-serving new features: the virtual currency of Facebook credits, the social sharing of iTunes Ping. It's exceptional when a company gets called on the carpet, as Microsoft did when including Internet Explorer in Windows. If Google does get a new round of antitrust scrutiny, it'll be illuminating to see how hard Google fought to keep Twitter data. It seems likely that it tried harder than Microsoft did to make a place for Netscape on Windows.
The practice of spotlighting Google+ results in Google search got Twitter's knickers in a twist yesterday, with its top lawyer tweeting:
Bad day for the Internet. bit.ly/Am5bqz Having been there, I can imagine the dissension @Google to search being warped this way.— Alex Macgillivray (@amac) January 10, 2012
Twitter later added, "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."
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt insisted yesterday that Google isn't favoring its Google+ content in an interview with Sullivan. Maybe Google does, and maybe it doesn't, but if Twitter truly wanted its data to appear in Google search results, I'm sure Google would jump at the chance.
Here again, though, it's not simple. Showing private Google+ information in Google search results is possible because Google owns Google+. Would Facebook be willing to reveal to as powerful a player as Google not only what people are saying but the network of people to whom they're saying it? Facebook gets a lot of grief for privacy incursions, but selling Google the keys to the kingdom would raise hackles.
Valuing social data
Overall, what seems to be going on here is jockeying that could help set the value of social data.
Google could probably persuade Facebook and Twitter to play along--but as exhibited by the demise of the real-time search deal, it seems likely the price isn't right.
By promoting Google+ in search, Google is sending Facebook and Twitter a strong signal that it has other options than paying through the nose for prime social information.
And by setting their own terms, Facebook and Twitter are protecting their own status as a starting point on the Net. Most companies work as hard as they can to get into Google's search results, lapping up the resulting traffic, but Twitter and Facebook have healthy usage and can't be eager to become vassal states.
Who'll blink first? It depends on how fast the rivals adapt and how fast people follow them. Quick Google+ growth, leveraged by Google search, will give Google an advantage. Facebook and Twitter expanding from update-sharing sites to search sites will mean they have more bargaining power.
The question, therefore, is not whether Google will include social data in search results. It's whose data it will include--and on whose terms.