By Aaron Goldman, VP, Marketing & Strategic Partnerships
Last week, Google announced the release of SearchWiki, a way for Google users to customize their search results. It seems the main benefit is the ability to bump up results you find most relevant so that they're there the next time you search on a related topic.
The video below has the quick and dirty. As I was watching this I wondered, "What happens when you don't want to search and retrieve but rather search and discover? Is there a way to undo your personalized results and return to an 'objective' SERP so I can find new sources of relevant information/entertainment?" Sure enough a few mintues in, the "undo" feature is displayed. And, of course, you can always log out to see "pure" search results.
A few other things struck me here:
2 weeks ago, I spent some time with the brain trust behind Microsoft Live Search. They revealed a pattern of usage that they see over and over in focus groups (and raw search logs) that shows people clicking on the same keyword and search result within a window of a couple hours/days -- effectively using the SERP for direct navigation instead of the more intuitive browser bookmark functionality. Google SearchWiki directly addresses/enables that behavior. The hard part, of course, is remembering what query you searched last time to get to that site you really liked.
Which leads me to the thread around search personalization leading to self-fulfilling profecies -- a topic I explored last year in a Search Insider column. With search engines continually refining their listings based on your preferences, eventually your universe will be shrunk to only those sites you've explicitly shown preference for -- ultimately reinforcing your already narrow point of view.
In my opinion, the big upside with SearchWiki is not in customized SERPs based on individual preferences but in crowd-sourced SERPs based on community pref's. This concept is something I fleshed out with one of our clients, Bryan Simkins, of FedEx, a couple weeks ago.
Imagine being able to toggle between SERPs customized based on your past history/pref's and SERPs based on those results selected by others. Taking it one step further, imagine a slider bar (ala SideStep) that allows you to refine results based on the preferences of various groups including:
• Your Facebook friends
• People in the US (or any other country, city, state, zip)
• All people 25-54 (or any other demo)
• All women (or men)
Today, Microsoft has all the pieces to make this reality. It has the deal with Facebook to power its search results and a plethora of audience data via registration. In fact Microsoft already makes the latter available to advertisers via adCenter Labs. You can see breakdowns by demo, geo, etc. for specific search queries. How hard would it to apply those segments to the actual results?
Here are some other filters that would add value to the SERPs:
• Most popular results this week (or day or month or year) -- Google already allows you to view query volume for specific date ranges via Insights for Search and also recently made its index from 2001 available for searching.
• Other social networks -- would be nice to slice and dice results based on the preferences of my LinkedIn Connections (when I’m conducting work-related research), my MySpace friends (when I’m looking for music or entertainment), my Twitter followers (a distinct bunch of oddballs in their own right), my Orkut friends (oh wait, I have none).
• Various content formats -- allow me to choose more or less results from video, images, news, maps, etc. Put universal search in the hands of the searcher. Rather than the engine trying to predict what I want to see based on my query, let me decide with my fancy little slider. And let’s go one step further by allowing you to “add to index” as you consume alternative content formats. For example, when I’m watching a video on YouTube, give me the option to “publish it” to my search index for easy retrieval and, in turn, distribution to my friends.
Behold the the true promise of social search. Let's hope the search engine providers can make the jump. Until then, their personalized results will be wikity wikity wikity whack.
Update: upon further reflection, we must also be wary of the downside to crowd-sourced SERPs. If we thought black hat SEOs were prevalent now with their elaborate cloaking, keyword stuffing, and link farming schemes, imagine the tricks they’ll come up with to influence people to rank up certain websites via Google SearchWiki and similar features from the other big engines.