Why Critics of Google's New Social Search are Wrong

Claims that Google's new 'Search, plus Your World' is unfairly boosting Google's own service, and that the new service lessens search results, are decidedly wrong-headed.
Posted January 19, 2012

Mike Elgan

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Google did what everyone expected last week, and integrated Google+ social results into Search. And then the knives came out.

Search engine guru Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land says Google’s new Search plus Your World feature unfairly favors Google+.

Slate magazine's Farhad Manjoo says Search plus Your World reduces the quality of Google Search results.

And The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has complained that Search plus Your World is an anti-trust violation and has called on the FTC to investigate.

Even Hitler hates Search plus Your World (warning: humorous YouTube video with adult language).

As a result of strong and ubiquitous criticism of Search plus Your World, a consensus has formed that the feature is unfair to competitors, reduces the quality of search and is illegal.

The critics are wrong.

In fact, Search plus Your World is fair, improves search and is not an anti-trust violation. Here’s why.

Criticism 1: "Search plus Your World unfairly favors Google over Twitter and Facebook."

That idea that Google+ is favored over other social networks in Google’s new Search has been most persuasively argued by Sullivan. His position is that Search plus Your World is a departure from what Google Search has been in the past, which is neutral between external sites, including its own.

Sullivan argues his case by comparing Google+ to YouTube (which is a Google-owned site).

If you search for "Lady Gaga" on Google Search, you'll see that both YouTube videos of Ms. Gaga and Google+ links about her -- including her own Google+ profile -- are prominently displayed, and are generally more emphasized than competing respective video sites and social networks.

And that’s the problem, according to Sullivan. YouTube results should rise above the rest because YouTube videos of Lady Gaga are more numerous and popular than Gaga videos on other video sites. YouTube is emphasized based on merit.

Google+, on the other hand, is treated as the major site for Gaga information when in fact it is not. The singer is far more popular and active on, say, Facebook and Twitter than on Google+, where her account is less than a week old.

Historically, Google has favored its own destination sites only when those sites earned it by being more popular or relevant according to the same criteria used on all sites.

That's Sullivan's argument, as I understand it.

The problem is that Sullivan is making an apples-to-oranges comparison. He's comparing a category of sites where the competitors are open to indexing with a category of sites where the competitors are closed to indexing.

A more accurate comparison could be made with Google's own dictionary compared with, say, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

I would love getting OED results when I search for words. However, Google favors its own dictionary and does not provide OED definitions in search results.

Nobody blames Google for this, because the OED has not made its definitions available to Google. The OED prefers that in order to gain access to data, users must have an account, and participate in the OED's monetization strategy. Exactly like Facebook.

I'm sure that if Google offered the OED a billion dollars, they'd be happy to open their dictionary to Google Search. But nobody is calling on Google to pay the OED a billion dollars, or saying that Google's results are biased as a result.

Likewise, if Google paid Facebook a billion dollars, they, too, would probably open their data to Google. In fact, Microsoft did pay Facebook, and Facebook did open to Microsoft.

OED vs. Google's dictionary is an apples-to-apples comparison with Facebook vs. Google+, while YouTube vs. other video sites is a false comparison.

And when an apples-to-apples comparison is made, Sullivan's argument falls apart.

Critics argue that Google should include results from Twitter and Facebook. But why those two? Why not LinkedIn, MySpace, Reddit, Digg, Bebo and thousands of other social networks?

Or are they arguing that Google shouldn't favor any social network, but include hundreds of them in the social component of search?

These are unanswered questions, for the most part, because asking them invites scrutiny of the implications of lazily slamming Search plus Your World as unfair.

These services aren't open. They're closed.

They don't make user-posted content, as well as the permissions information that would be required to put them on an equal footing with Google+, available to search engine companies -- unless they sign a business deal that involves the transfer of millions or billions of dollars from Google to those companies.

What the critics who call for equal treatment of competing social networks are actually demanding is for Google to annually negotiate access deals with hundreds of social services – and agreeing to whatever their terms are no matter what -- in order to be “fair.”

And if they’re not calling for this, ask them what they want Google to do? How is Google supposed to get the data?

Besides, the so-called “exclusion” of social data from search has been going on since the first day Google launched.

There has always been a parallel "invisible web" -- web-based content that is blocked from being indexed by search engines. In fact, the "invisible web" is far larger than the visible web. Google “excludes” from Search results the vast majority of web content, social and otherwise.

Facebook has decided that most user-posted content is part of the "invisible web." Facebook tightly and expertly controls exactly what Google is allowed to index. Facebook allows Microsoft to index a lot more for its Bing search engine because the two companies have formed a "strategic alliance" to work together against Google. In fact, Microsoft is part owner of Facebook with a 1.6% stake valued at well over a billion dollars.

However, and like all "invisible web" data, the way to best search Facebook is to become a member of this private service, then use the internal search engine.

In that sense, Facebook is like any of thousands of message boards, intranets and chat rooms on the “invisible web” that are not made available to the public or to search engines.

Non-indexable old-school social networking is every bit as "social" as Facebook information, and it’s every bit as "invisible" to Google.

In other words, Google has been "excluding" "invisible web" social data for the entire history of Google Search -- and did so long before Twitter and Facebook existed.

Just because "social networking" is a buzzword in vogue, and just because Facebook is the current darling of the media, doesn't mean Google’s so-called "exclusion" of Facebook's "invisible web" data is new. It's not.

If companies want to keep their data away from Google's index, they have a right to do that.

Twitter is another major critic of Search plus Your World. The company mailed to journalists a statement slamming the feature.

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Tags: social media, google+, Search plus Your World

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