By now you have probably seen that Google has introduced something that they call Search, Plus Your World, with the official announcement on their blog page. For ease of use I'll call it Search+. Google explains it like this: "We’re transforming Google into a search engine that understands not only content, but also people and relationships." So the idea here is clear - Google is going to become a search engine that is about social, not about the web. This is an absolute change in the way that Google works; it is going to pay less attention to web pages and web sites, and more attention to the people that you know and follow. This is something that I've been talking about for some time now, so it's unsurprising to see Google doing it, but what is surprising, although it shouldn't be, is the inept way that they have done it. More on that later however.
Google goes on to explain more about the change:
- Personal Results, which enable you to find information just for you, such as Google+ photos and posts—both your own and those shared specifically with you, that only you will be able to see on your results page;
- Profiles in Search, both in autocomplete and results, which enable you to immediately find people you’re close to or might be interested in following; and,
- People and Pages, which help you find people profiles and Google+ pages related to a specific topic or area of interest, and enable you to follow them with just a few clicks. Because behind most every query is a community.
Let's see that in operation. If I do a search for CILIP this is what I get:
You'll see that to the right of the results there are two new symbols - a person and a world. This is the toggle to turn personalised results on and off. I have them turned on, so I'm looking at what Google regards as my personal data. That is to say, information that I've produced, or that has been produced by people that I follow. However, this is only pulling data from what GOOGLE decides is 'my world' and that world is very limited. First of all, there are two references on the first page of results from what I've said in my own Google+ account, but I don't actually need to see those thanks very much, because I wrote them. Six of the results are from other Google+ accounts belonging to people that I follow. There are two from Google's own Blogspot (Blogger) service which leaves 1 result from a Twitter account that I don't follow, but it's included because someone that I follow on Google+ recommended it. So everything that I'm getting is related to my presence on Google. No reference to my own Twitter account, or Facebook pages, or from any of the other resources that I use, of which there are many. It's not that Google doesn't know about them, or at least some of them, since I told it about my other profiles, so it knows all about my Flickr account for example. However, it hasn't pulled in any data from those sites. So 'World' in Google Search+ terms, means 'Google World'.
How much of an issue is this? It's a seriously large issue, because it immediately limits what I see to a small subsection of my actual world. I'm not seeing content from all my contacts, just those that Google chooses to show me. If you think that there are anti-trust implications in this you would be right. Only those contacts of mine who are active in Google+ are showing up, and this is one of the reasons why I have been encouraging people to get G+ accounts and to become active in that arena. I don't like it, but Google is essentially doing its best to force everyone into that service. As long as Google remains the key search engine out there, and as long as we continue to use it, we're going to have to play by their rules.
Now, if this just hurt other social networks, I probably wouldn't have that much of an issue, but it doesn't, it hurts me. This is not a helpful service at all. Now, you can argue that I'm making a fuss over nothing, since I can simply click on the world icon and see everything back to normal again. That's true, but we've only got half the story so far. What happens when I try and use Google without being logged into my account - when it doesn't know who I am, or anything about me. (I'm in Danny Sullivans debt on this one, as he has produced some excellent examples that I've confirmed also work for me.)
If I do a search for 'music' this is what I get:
Down the right hand side of the screen I'm getting results for two artists from their Google+ profiles. Not from their Facebook or Twitter accounts, just Google+. This is not helpful, since I can get more information about the artists from those accounts than I can from the Google+ pages. In its focus on its own products and its own 'world', other sites and social networks are immediately downgraded. It's unsurprising therefore that Twitter commented "We're concerned that as a result of Google's changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that's bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users" The response from Google is predictable: "We are a bit surprised by Twitter's comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer," Google said in a public post." In other words - unless companies choose to work with Google it's their fault if they are not included in search results. This is a really dangerous approach for Google to take, and one that in the long run is not going to be sustainable, as it breaks search into Google properties and non-Google properties, with the latter being of less value. This does not help searchers at all - quite the contrary.
There's more however. If I start to do a search, see what Google suggests for me:
Yes, Ms Spears Google+ account. Her Twitter or Facebook account, or even her official Website may be more useful and more informative, but that's not an option that Google is suggesting. This isn't because Google doesn't know about these resources, since they are actively linked to from the singers Google+ account. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt claims that Google can't provide information on all of this information because Twitter and Facebook haven't given Google the right to access their data. This is quite clearly incorrect, since Google accesses Twitter on a regular basis:
That's a lot of content! (As an aside, do a search for site:www.twitter.com which is obviously asking the search engine for exactly the same type of information. You get five, yes - five results. How's that for broken search?)
Now, you can claim that it's Google's search engine, and they can do what they want. Well, given that they're the leading search engine, they probably can't do that - I've referenced the concerns over anti trust earlier in the blog. However, there's more here, and it's back to the fundamentals of search. Google cannot be trusted to give accurate relevant search results any longer. Do a search for 'car' and this is what you get:
Those three results on the right hand side, from Ferrari, Ford and Toyota are all linking to their Google+ accounts. The first car manufacturer to get listed in the organic results - indeed, the ONLY one to get listed is Ford. So, in order to get any sort of visibility on the Google page, it would seem necessary to have a Google+ account. Danny gives another great example - a Google search for Facebook. This is what we get:
The first of those results on the right, links to Mark Zuckerberg's G+ account, which he has never used. This is not valuable, helpful, relevant or informative. But Google doesn't care. Google is not interested in making sure that search results are of use, Google is interested in promoting its own products.
Why is this important for librarians?
It's important for a number of reasons. Firstly, users of Google will not necessarily recognise what Google has done; lots of them have difficulty working out what are adverts and what are organic listings at the best of times, and to expect them to see the intricacies of Search+ is asking too much. Besides - why should they have to? Why shouldn't they just expect a search engine to, y'know, search?
Second, if users click on the personalised results they will have very different results to the ones that you'll be seeing, and if you're trying to help someone over the phone, you need to remember to check with them to make sure that you're both looking at vaguely similar screens. Although even then, you won't be, since Google personalises results if you like it or not.
Third, and this is where I do an about face, you need to be on Google+. It doesn't matter if you don't want to be, don't think it's useful, don't have time for it etc, you have to be there. You have to be there because you need to be where the conversations are taking place, and Google is having conversations with users regardless of what you think. And that conversation is about you - Google is either telling your users that you are there and active, or it's telling them that you're not. With a stroke, you cease to be important - at least as far as Google is concerned. However, if you're using Google products, have a Google profile page, and are using the +1 option, Google is going to be shouting your name from the rooftops. So - hypocritical it may be, but until and if Google changes its tune with regards this fundamental change in search, you've got to be involved.
That goes for all the other social networks as well, because this isn't just Google. Google is being particularly inept (as they always are when it comes to social and search), but other search engines are also working in the social media arena, such as Bing and Blekko to name just two. We are not going back to a pre social media world of search ever again. Search has now entirely changed, something that I've been banging on about for a long time, and it's become social. What we're going to see happen in the future is more, not less reference to individuals. Search engines will use your G+ profile, Twitter account, Facebook profile, Flickr account and so on to leverage content, and if you're not using these tools, you won't exist. Other people will do, and they will be your members friends, relations and colleagues. That means that THEY are the ones who will be approached for help, advice and guidance, and not you. As information professionals that should be a very worrying development for you if you're not fully engaged in social media. We are swiftly moving from a situation in which the individual gets recognition by way of their employer to one in which the company is going to gain from the exposure their employees have. If you don't like this, then I'm sorry, and I'd love to give you comfort, but I can't.
In the interim of course, there are options, and the biggest one is to change to another search engine. I said back in April 2010 that I'd moved away from Google as my personal search engine of choice. I strongly recommend looking at Bing, DuckDuckGo and Blekko as serious contenders to use - not only for yourselves, but for your members as well. Even if you don't want to make such a drastic change, please do look at them, since you need to be in a good position to advise your users on the best and more effective way to search. I couldn't honestly say that's Google any longer - can you?