Refusing to sit still long enough for anyone to catch up, Google has rolled out another Labs experiment to the public. Google Social Search Beta launched last October, hard on the heels of Personalized Search. But this week, Google graduated Social Search out of Labs and into the public sphere.
What Is Google Social Search?
As we become increasingly connected online, we start to build around ourselves a community of people that we have regular contact with and websites where we spend much of our time. This is called our social network. Now Google has worked out a way to measure and leverage these individual social networks so they influence the search results we see. Those results therefore become more relevant to us and more influential over time.
Google determines your social network based on the connections found in your public Google profile. Connections are classed as either direct connections or secondary connections. Your Gmail chat buddies and contacts are direct connections, as are connections from links listed in your Google profile (e.g. people you follow on Twitter, LinkedIn or FriendFeed). Secondary connections are those publicly associated with your direct connections (e.g. the people that your friends follow on Twitter).
To see your social profile on Google, login to your Google account and visit the social dashboard. The first time you do this, Google will collect all the social data it has stored about you, based on your Google Profile and public content, and build what they call your *social circle*.
After Google builds your social circle, whenever Google’s algorithm determines that your search experience will be improved, it annotates regular web index data with social data customized from your social circle and adds this information to the bottom of your search results.
You MUST be signed in to Google to see this. If you’re not happy with the results, say from Twitter, you can delete your Twitter account from your Google profile to prevent published info from your Twitter connections being added to your social circle.
You can also add or block Google contacts so you don’t see information from them in your social circle. In the reverse, you can choose what content you want to make public, based on your published Google profile.
How Does Social Search Work?
Google Social Search has been in experimental mode since October, but this week it’s been rolled out to full public Beta, meaning you should now see social content in your search results on Google.com. Google hasn’t rolled Social Search out to their regional sites at this stage, but this is expected soon.
To see social search results in action, login to your Google account, then run a search. You’ll see the heading *Results from people in your social circle* towards the bottom of the search results page. For example, if I run a search for *music blogs* on Google.com, I get the following social circle suggestions:
If you want to see more social results, click on the *Show Options* link at the top left of the page and click on the *Social* link in the side menu under *All Results*. This will bring up search results sourced entirely from your social network. You’ll also see a list of your friends and connections under the menu heading *All People*. You can click on a particular name in the list to bring up more results from their public content.
Next to your social circle results are two links that are new additions to the service added to coincide with the public rollout: my social circle and my social content (pictured). These take you to your social circle dashboard that I linked to earlier.
The *my social circle* tab displays your extended network of online contacts, as well as the pathways that connect you. Clicking on the *my social content* tab brings up your public social media profiles, taken from your Google profile, that might appear in other people’s social results (pictured).
Apart from this social dashboard, the other major difference between the original Social Search experiment and the new public rollout is the addition of Google Images into the mix. If anyone in your social circle has shared images on Flickr or Picasa and Google determines they are relevant to your search query, you may see these in your search results as well.
Judging by my social search experiments to date, I believe Google has been collating social results for some time. A key observation is that relevance seems to win over freshness in the social influenced search results - some of the top results in my social circle were from 2008.
How Do You Take Advantage of Social Search?
- If you haven’t already done so, create a Gmail account and create and flesh out your Google Profile immediately.
- Join more social sites if you want your content to appear in the SERPs of your direct and secondary social circle networks, particularly the primary ones Twitter, Flickr and FriendFeed.
- Optimize your social media content (tweets, FB and LinkedIn status updates, blog feeds, etc) for target keywords to ensure your social content is shown in a wider number of social circle SERPs.
- Gmail and Chat contacts get top billing in your social circle so choose your Gmail buddies wisely or remove them from your profile altogether.
- Consider the type of social content that is popular and most often shared within your networks. Concentrate on building similar content in your public social media profiles to ensure it gets syndicated via your social circle.
- If Universal Search wasn’t enough of a punch in the gut to convince you to optimize your multimedia content, consider Social Search to be that punch placed a little lower. Your shared photos just became another content channel.
- Become more picky about who you follow and what social feeds you subscribe to. They have just become influencers in your every day search results.
What if I Don’t Like It?
If your particular social circle seems a little lightweight or top heavy, you can control what results you do and don’t see under your social search results. You can choose to either remove a social network from your Google profile (such as Twitter or Facebook), or remove a specific contact from your network.
You can ignore the social results at the bottom of the page when signed in, or if you don’t wish to see any social search results at all, simply conduct your searches while signed out of your Google account.
It’s important to note that Google doesn’t make your social circle public e.g. publish your list of chat buddies. It simply adds your buddies’ public information to YOUR social circle.
What Does it All Mean?
What this really means is that standard SERPs are a thing of the past. Over the last couple of years, we’ve come to expect that a search for *blue widgets* will pull up completely different results for someone in London and someone in New York. But with Google having rolled out personalized search, real time search and now social search, you and your flatmate could be sharing an Internet connection in the same room and be served very different SERPs for identical search queries.
As for how this impacts online marketing? For starters, if you’ve been hoping social media will just go away, it’s time to wake up and smell the pancakes. Not only is online social networking not going anywhere, it is thriving and changing how we search. It is now in your interest to expand your social network and create a presence on as many social sites as you can.
More importantly, your clients will be looking to you to help them understand how to use social search to their advantage. Embrace the opportunity and get socializing.