Google Revamps Search Results To Feature Personal and Social Content

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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, 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 … 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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