Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is taking the bold step of changing the way it displays search results as part of an ongoing effort to become more social. The move could enable Google finally to offer a meaningful challenge to Facebook by tapping its powerful search abilities — provided, of course, that people decide to use it.
The new features, styled Search plus Your World, were announced on a blog post today and come in three prongs. The first is the inclusion of “personal results” in the return to search queries. These results are based on what a user has shared through pictures on Picasa and on Google+ posts. To illustrate how the new results can work, Google offers the example of a search for “chikoo,” which is a fruit from India and also the name of an employee’s dog. For the employee, a personal search will reveal pics and posts of the pooch alongside the ordinary results about the fruit:
The second item in Google’s new bag of tricks is a new type of search results that can flush out friends who have common names. For instance, Ben Smith is the name of a political journalist, an NHL hockey player and a Google staffer. The latter person will appear at the top of the results page for those connected to him through Google+ or on Picasa.
The feature seems a bit of a mixed blessing for those of us who share a name with myriad others. On one hand, this could be my chance to finally dislodge that Christian rock outfit named Jeff Roberts from Google’s top slot (well, at least among those who know me). On the other hand, the new system may make it become harder to rely on my common name to hide from Google stalkers.
The final new feature is called People and Places and aspires to offer a sense of community by returning a list of new connections in response to generic queries like “music” or “baseball.” The company’s blog post suggests a search for music will bring up Google+ posts from the likes of Snoop and Britney Spears. Google appears to be betting big on this feature, as it is giving it significant new real estate on the right side of its results pages.
So what should we make of all this? Is Your World the product that will allow Google to move into the social space it has been craving for so long?
From a design perspective, the product looks good. Whereas Google’s previous forays like Buzz and Wave conveyed a tech-insider’s aesthetic, the presence of pictures gives Your World a more compelling, intimate feel akin to Facebook’s Timeline. And one of the best features is a toggle switch at the top right of the page that lets a user easily move back and forth between personal and conventional search results.
The product also makes sense from a conceptual point of view. People value Google’s all-powerful search algorithm and will likely enjoy applying it to their own online lives. Googling oneself has after all long been been a common, if rarely admitted, phenomenon.
Tapping its search power for social also makes strategic sense for Google. Search is the one area where it is the unacknowledged master and is something Facebook can’t come close to touching.
But a good product and a sound strategy by no means ensures that Search and Your World will not flop just as badly as Buzz and Wave. To succeed this time, Google has some significant obstacles to overcome. The largest of these is the “why bother” barrier. Most users already feel spread thin on the social front with Facebook, LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD) and Twitter. The fatigue with social is reflected in Google’s moribund +1 campaign, a feature that was supposed to rival Facebook’s Like button but simply never caught on.
For Your World to work, the company will first have to attract a critical mass to Google+, which is the lynchpin on which the personalized search results are based. The attractive promise of personalized search results simply will not materialize if most people’s friends decide to ignore Google+ and simply stay on Facebook.
In an email, a Google spokeswoman cited the company’s latest public numbers that claim that 40 million people have signed on to Google+ and shared more than 3.4 billion photos. It remains to be seen though how many of these 40 million will stick around.
And then there is the privacy issue. The company has obviously learned its lesson after the Buzz debacle in which it imposed a social network on some users that was not of their own making. This time around, it’s being careful to ensure that people share only what they want to share, relying in large part on the circle concept that is the foundation of Google+. But this is still no guarantee people will give Google a chance — some will remain suspicious and others simply will not be bothered to learn yet another set of privacy practices.
Overall, there is a lot at stake here. Buckets of online ad money are pouring into Facebook, and the rate is increasing with the social network’s new sponsored stories feature. Google feels that it must have a piece of this action, and Search and Your World may be its last chance to prove that it has learned how to do social.