When Google launched its new social search features earlier this month, with results from Google+ prominently displayed, Twitter was quick to criticize the company for giving its own network preferential treatment, but there was no response from Facebook. Now, the giant social network is making itself heard in a different way: director of product Blake Ross and a small team have launched a browser plugin called “Don’t be evil” they claim presents Google’s search more fairly, and they are publicizing it through a site called “Focus on the user.” It seems the battle is on to prove who is more open — but is this a war that Facebook can win, or just a chance to score some cheap PR points against Google?
Google calls its new feature “Search plus Your World,” but as we and others noted at the time of its launch, the results that show up for most users (the service is enabled by default) consist primarily of Google+ content, including status updates, photos and profile pages. Even when a user isn’t logged in to Google, the promotional section of the search page shows Google+ recommendations — and when a user is logged in, results appear to favor pages from Google’s network, even when someone uses a term that implies they are looking for a Twitter profile.
Google says it doesn’t favor its own results, but is that true?
Google chairman Eric Schmidt has said the company doesn’t favor its own social network in results, and it would be more than happy to display results from Twitter and Facebook, but hasn’t been able to get proper access to their data (a deal with Twitter expired late last year and wasn’t renewed). But Sullivan noted Google’s results are full of information from Twitter that has come through a standard web-crawl, and Google seems to be deliberately not showing them as prominently.
This is the central point Blake Ross and his team of programmers — some of whom work for Myspace and Twitter — say they are trying to make with their plugin. As Ross explained to John Battelle of Federated Media, the browser “bookmarklet” allows a user to rearrange their search results to show what Facebook says is a more objective view of the web, instead of one that favors Google+ content. But the plugin doesn’t just remove Google+ results: instead, Ross says it simply uses the company’s own search algorithm to provide results from multiple networks (such as Twitter and Facebook) by looking at how that content is ranked without the “Search plus Your World” setting enabled:
So that’s what our “bookmarklet” does. It looks at the three places where Google only shows Google+ results and then automatically googles Google to see if Google finds a result more relevant than Google+.
The three places the site is referring to are the search results themselves, the promotional box on the right-hand side often reserved for ads, and the “suggested search” or auto-complete text that comes up when you start typing in the search field. As described in a FAQ at the “Focus on the User” site and in a video demonstration (which is embedded below), the plugin combines a regular unfiltered Google search with some of the search engine’s other features — such as “rich web snippets,” which take images and excerpts from web pages — to present results from multiple networks.
Facebook is playing a dangerous game
If an unknown programmer had released this plugin, it might have seemed like just a good-natured thumb in the eye for Google and its social-search ambitions, but because Ross is the director of product at Facebook (and a former lead developer at Mozilla) — and his team went to the trouble of registering a domain, recording a demo video, etc. for their plugin — makes it clear this is a shot across Google’s bow from a major competitor. But will it accomplish what Facebook hopes it will accomplish?
Most users will probably never install the “Don’t be evil” plugin or bookmarklet, and many may not even see why Google’s new social results are a bad thing. Some Google supporters have argued that the company should be able to promote whatever it wants in its results, and that if users don’t like it they can switch to using Microsoft’s Bing or some other search engine. So why is Facebook bothering? Among other things, the social network is probably hoping to ratchet up the attention federal antitrust regulators are paying to Google’s behavior, since its favoritism of its own services has already become an issue with the Federal Trade Commission.
This skirmish feels a lot like a replay of the last time Google and Facebook locked horns, when Google changed the terms of its API to prevent Facebook users from importing their Gmail contacts automatically, since Facebook didn’t allow users of other services to download their Facebook contact info. At one point, Google even renamed its contact-exporting feature “Trap My Contacts Now” as a way of highlighting what it said was Facebook’s lack of openness. (Facebook later changed its settings so that users can download the email addresses of their social graph, but only if each user gives their permission.)
The reality of this ongoing battle is that both sides have shown they are more than happy to criticize others for being closed or proprietary or otherwise unfair, at the same time they themselves favor their own content or services, lock up their data or otherwise use their market position to strong-arm their competitors. “Don’t be evil” is a knife that cuts in multiple directions, and both Google and Facebook need to be careful about how — and where — they wave it around.