Google Revamps Search Results To Feature Personal and Social Content

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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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