The Evolution of Social Search

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Web search has been with us for 19 years now, with its origins dating back to 1945 according to this site. Google introduced its famous search engine 14 years ago. Since then, search has become an integral part of our online routine—it’s no longer limited to finding keywords on web pages, but also used for discovering content, getting quick answers, navigating, shopping, and much more. A good overview of search engine history can be found here.

In recent years, the web has become more “social” as more and more websites and applications started offering user-generated content and various ways of interacting with other users. What started with activities in online forums and chat applications quickly evolved into social networks, photo- and file-sharing services, and blogging (and micro blogging) platforms. In the last few years especially, it seems like almost every online product we use on our desktops, tablets, or mobile devices features a social element that supports information sharing, social connections, new types of productivity, commerce, and more.

So it was only natural that search and social would someday intertwine. At first, search engines indexed the public pages of social-oriented sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter, and later on improved the way they ranked social results. For example, a search on Google for a certain person’s name would usually display results from that person’s social network pages and other user-generated content sites.

In the last two to three years, search engines have taken a more advanced approach. Rather than just indexing and ranking public pages, they can now integrate relevant results from social networks and websites directly as part of the search results page. Both Google and Bing tested out versions of their search pages that suggested additional results from Twitter, pushed in real time to the search results page. So a user who searched for “Barack Obama,” let’s say, could also get a few results from related content generated by Twitter users. Bing later introduced a more advanced feature offering users to sign in to their Facebook account and receive results generated from content posted by them and their friends on the popular social network (see example below).

 

Google later responded with a new feature called "Search, plus Your World," allowing users of Google’s social network Google+ to get additional results based on the content and activities in their social account. The social results are mixed into the organic web results as part of Google’s approach that social is an important part of each user’s world and therefore should be reflected in their search—assuming that many of the answers can be found in the user’s close circles.

Earlier this week, Bing announced the latest update in social search with its new “social sidebar.” Bing is now adding an entire layer to its search results pages, which sort of combines some of the previous features we described above into one “uber” social feature. The new sidebar adds results from social sites with an emphasis on content by users who are identified by Bing as experts and influencers. In addition, it includes public content from social networks, and users who log in to their Facebook accounts can also get results based on content and activities in their network. Bing also added the ability to “search with friends,” helping users share their search results and ask their friends about them (see example shown in the picture below). That way, a user searching for a “NYC hotel” can not only get web results but actual recommendations from friends who recently stayed in a great hotel.

It’s pretty clear that search is evolving and getting more social. And the more that social activities become dominant in our online lives, the more they get integrated into search. Both Google and Bing have recently released new social search features. And the next few months will continue to bring new features and updates based on users’ reactions to the recent releases.