Google (s GOOG) has said (see my feature story) that its 2010 plan to break into the social web will consist of personalizing its products by encouraging people to expose and tie together information about who they’re connected to. To that end, today the company made its experimental social search feature a public beta rather than just an opt-in one. Now, when you search on Google.com while logged in, if it can find relevant pages published by people you’re connected to, it will show them at the bottom of the results page.
I was downright surprised to know how little Google knows (or is willing to admit it knows) about my connections. As part of the release today, the site opened up a personal dashboard page that shows each user’s “social circle.” According to my page, Google knows I am directly contacted to a grand total of 20 people (mostly, folks I know who are freelancers and therefore have good web presences or friends who have used Picasa to store pictures). Further, it tells me that I’m not showing up in any of those friends’ social search results, because “Google is not aware of any online content you have to share with your friends.”
Really!? I’m a pretty public person. I write for blogs using my real name. I update Twitter! Further, I use Gmail and have thousands of contacts there, and it would be easy to see which ones are important to me based on how frequently I email them.
What’s happening is that Google is being very cautious about clueing me in as to what it knows. The ways Google builds social circles is via your Google chat buddy list and by looking at accounts you’ve entered on your Google Profile. There’s no real incentive at the moment to fill out a Google profile, but I actually had. Apparently not well enough. My profile is associated with my Gmail address and has some basic info about my education and job, but I hadn’t noticed a place down near the bottom where you can add links to places to find yourself on the web. And Google fails to provide the familiar social web logo soup like you’d see when you configure an aggregation product like FriendFeed.
So I just went in now and added URLs and feeds for some of my web presences. Google tells me “it may take some time for the connections and content to update.” As for my Gmail contacts, it turns out I have to go in and tell Google explicitly that they are “friends” or “family” by adding them to a list.
To be sure, this is only a beta feature. Speaking at a conference I attended today about the semantic web, Johanna Wright, Google’s director of product management for search, said of the launch: “This is just at the beginning. You can expect a lot to come.” But maybe Google has overreacted to people’s fears of its creepiness. Either it needs to develop better and clearer incentives for people to share, or it needs to get a little more comfortable with using the implicit information I give it every day.
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