Google+ added to search, at what cost?


In what Google have dubbed ‘search plus your world’, Google is undergoing its most profound change ever to its search results, with Google+ results now prioritised in Google searches, but results from competing social networks not included.

Going forward, search results will now include private (Google+) content alongside normal results, as well as being personalised according to Google+ interests. For search to be personalised, users need to be signed in to to be part of what Google think will improve the search experience.

There are three main aspects to the changes:

Personal results: Google will show content especially relevant to you, so if your sister shares a picture of her cat Tweetie with you on Google+, if you search on Google for Tweetie, her photos will show up in the results. Likewise for relevant content shared by Google+ brand pages you’ve put in your circles.

Profiles in search: If I search for someone in my circles on Google+ – say John Smith – the added ‘profiles in search’ feature means his Google+ profile will automatically appear at the top of the search rankings, above all the other web results for John Smith’s who may or may not be my friend. A link to his profile will also appear as an auto-complete option as I’m typing his name in the search box.

People and Pages: Google have added a completely new right-hand side bar to search result pages, where ‘People and Pages’ appear – Google+ accounts relevant to the search you’ve just conducted (for example Britney Spears appears for the search ‘music’ – clearly a sign the algorithm still needs some tweaking).

Search Engline Land have a detailed walkthrough of the changes. To be fair to Google, these changes may well improve the search experience, assuming Google+ had wide adoption and usage.

But it’s hard to argue with Twitter’s take on the changes, that they’re bad for the internet:

For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results any time they wanted to find something on the internet.

As we’ve seen time and time again, 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. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organisations and Twitter users.

Interestingly, there’s a case to be made that the changes Google have made are illegal – at least in America: it’s illegal there for a company which is dominant in one field to use that dominance to gain competitive advantage in another, and judging by how results from Twitter are being shoved down Google search rankings, it seems a reasonable conclusion that that’s exactly what Google is doing.

Google’s excuse for the update featuring only Google+ content seems a bit weak: namely that Twitter didn’t renew their agreement with them last summer, hence the end of Google Realtime, and why tweets aren’t featured in search results. But there’s no sign that Google offered even an olive branch before making this change, which suggests that they were perfectly happy to do so, even though its uncompetitive. More to the point, although it was Facebook which backed out of a deal with Google in 2009 for social search, there’s no sign Google have gone back to offer Facebook a partnership – they just don’t care. Although Facebook are yet to make an official statement, that ex-employees of Google working at Facebook openly disapprove of the move says a lot.

That Google’s Amit Singhal anticipated the backlash to the changes, hints at how bizarre a move it is. This is what he said before Twitter had even responded:

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. Of course, going forward, if others were willing to change, we’d look at designing things to see how it would work.

It might make some sense if Google+ was popular, but it’s not – and the by-product of that is not just that it’s pushing Google+ results over other social networks; it’s that Google+ results are pushed at the cost of relevancy. Search Engine Land carried a great post featuring a whole sequence of examples where this is the case, and it’s a position backed by American pressure group EPIC:

Incorporating results from Google+ into ordinary search results allows Google to promote its own social network by leveraging its dominance in the search engine market.

In fact, this move seems so likely to draw interest from the regulators that Techcrunch speculates Google might be deliberately aiming to open up a larger debate ahead of Facebook’s IPO.

I’ll leave the final word on the changes to the usually taciturn Robin Grant, MD of We Are Social:

Google have done what they told us they would – adding Google+ as a social layer to search results. The thing is, to Twitter – and, I bet, Facebook – this seems unfair, as they’re now left out of the picture.

Given Google’s dominant position in search both in the US and the EU, I can see regulators either side of the Atlantic agreeing with them.

The issue may be not that they’ll be slow to act but that, when they do, Google will try to make including Twitter and Facebook profiles in search results conditional on Twitter and Facebook being more open with their data.

As to what difference this will make to Google+ adoption in the long run, I’d say very little. It may drive people to set-up Google+ accounts, so that they’ll appear in results, but will do nothing to encourage people to actually use them, which is still Google’s biggest problem.