Teams Work: Social Search Gets Results

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Whether you are a student, a scientist, or a silver surfer, horizontal search engines are designed from the ground up to deliver the same results to all searchers based on queries and key words. While this one-size-fits-all approach has proven adequate at delivering the expected results, it has created a market opportunity for search engines that dive deep into the areas we’re passionate about to bubble up answers that are more tailored to our individual interests.

It’s a paradigm shift that has paved the way for a proliferation of vertical search engines, creating a Long Tail of special interest destinations ranging from Petfinder.com to nanoHub.org. Against this backdrop, Outsell, Inc., a market research and consulting company that delivers intelligence and advice to publishers and information providers, predicts B2B vertical search revenue alone will reach a cool $1 billion by 2009. The popularity of these new search engines stems directly from growing user dissatisfaction with horizontal search; Outsell estimates the average internet search failure rate is a whopping 31.9 percent.

Vertical sites and search go a long way toward meeting our demand for a more customized search experience, but it still lacks an important ingredient: people. In fact, both horizontal and vertical search engines rely on link- and text-based computations, an approach that tends to promote search-engine-optimized sites over the truly optimal ones. But there may be a way to tackle the quality problem: “Human judgment restores the balance and can encourage trust in search results,” observes Mark Donovan, a senior analyst at M:Metrics, which measures consumer consumption of mobile content and applications.

Adding a human element to the search equation also recognizes the rise of a participatory culture and the role of so-called Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs and wikis, which give people control over their content experiences. “Bookmarking, tagging, voting, blogging, and networking--now our conversations are content,” says Donovan. “And we want search technologies that give us more of a say in our results.”

Combine these factors and you have the perfect Petri dish conditions for what Donovan calls “second generation search,” an approach that effectively infuses human preferences and human judgments into computer algorithms to pinpoint truly relevant information better. Aptly referred to as “people-powered search,” social search harnesses people to deliver results tailored to who they are and what they like.

In a nutshell, the idea of social search--search that enables people to factor their personal knowledge, opinions, and experiences into search results--has arrived in full force. Currently there is little reliable data on the magnitude of social search use, but the explosion of social search services over just the last months is proof that the idea of people helping people isn’t about idealism; it may just be the basis for an ideal business model.

One Big Social Network
No wonder the market is teeming with people-powered search tools. They range from Wikipedia, the founder of which recently took the wraps off Wikia, a search service slated to launch toward the end of this year that combines computer-driven algorithms and human-assisted editing, to nimble newcomers like NosyJoe, a private beta social search engine that relies on people to “sniff the web for interesting content.” In its hybrid approach to social search, NosyJoe extracts the meaningful sentences, phrases, and keywords from content to make it searchable, and then applies algorithms and user patterns to further ranking, mashing, and sharing.

Perhaps the most ambitious and far-reaching social search service will simply grow out of Yahoo! Answers, the question-and-answer social media exchange that enables more than 90 million people worldwide to share what they care about. The company has recently added a social networking capability to the service, taking social search to a new level by helping people connect to information they care about most through others with similar interests.

In a recent interview with Search Engine Journal, Tomi Poutanen, senior director of product management for Yahoo! social search said, “Knowledge networking in Yahoo! Answers combines the power of the world’s knowledge with the trust and context of personal communities. Knowledge networks make Yahoo! Answers a more personal, productive, and interesting experience by directly connecting users to the information and people that are most interesting to them.”

However, not all social search services must be rooted in large social networks to succeed. The service Ask MetaFilter--a pioneer social search service that launched as a simple Q&A site in 1999--built a loyal following by encouraging members to feel at home on the site. “As members began to identify more with the community, they started to post questions to other members rather than post them to the general internet,” recalls Jessamyn West, a librarian and long-time Ask MetaFilter moderator. Over time, this trust has allowed the site to grow its ranks to 57,000 registered members who pay a one-time fee of $5 to join and post one question per week.

“Most of the time it’s members asking for advice and anyone is qualified to give advice,” West explains. Ask MetaFilter members are enthusiastic about sharing their opinions and submitting and answering questions each week. West’s task is to monitor the exchange, making sure that everyone’s voice is heard. and to weed out comments that are blatant advertising.

The site has not only made the transition to social search; its membership has self-organized into smaller groups around common interests and expertise. The lively exchange has inspired members around the world to meet, talk, and exchange views in real life. To maintain the momentum and meet demand for new features and functionality, the site has expanded its offer with services including MetaTalk, the community weblog; MetaFilter Music, a subcommunity site where members can upload their own songs for others to enjoy and share; and MeFi Projects, a place where members can announce their web projects and others can vote on the ones they like and leave feedback for the creator.

For West, such efforts come with the territory of enabling social search. She strongly believes social search sites cannot build a sustainable business on tapping the minds of their members for input, feedback, or suggestions without giving something back. In the case of Ask MetaFilter, the reward is a trusted space where members can communicate freely and without fear of ridicule. “It’s a structure that really accrues over time,” observes Donovan of M:Metrics, who is also a faithful Ask MetaFilter member. “It’s valuable for me to spend time there . . . there’s also a positive feeling and a kind of status that goes with being a contributor to the community.”

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