There is a lot of talk about how Google is 'running scared of Facebook'. Whilst the algorithm Google uses is far more complex these days, at its basic level it relies primarily on assessing the quality of inbound links from other sites to help score the relative appropriateness and usefulness of pages. So type in a query like say 'Rwanda holidays' and the search engine checks out all the sites where this phrase appears in key places on the page and assesses the links from other sites to that page. The higher quality the links (for example from more reputable sources like newspapers and universities) and the greater the number, the higher up the search results the page will appear. (SEO types I know this is very rudimentary - but I hope you'll agree it's more or less how it works.)
What Facebook is doing increasingly successfully is allowing people to get recommendations not from a link-based algorithm like Google's, but from their networks of friends and associates. So instead of relying solely on links to a particular page in my Rwandda holidays example, higher priority is given to pages that people in my network have written or linked to or 'liked'. This network of friends and colleagues is sometimes referred to as your social graph.
Unsurprisingly Google is trying add in this kind of functionality to its search engine – if you are signed into a Google account when you search and have connected with friends on Google it adjusts results to prioritise what your friends and colleagues rate. Google Buzz is another example of the company trying to get social connections and recommendations into the search results mix. Apparently there's yet another new Google toy in the pipeline called Google Me too.
Others are following suit. Trip Advisor now carries hundreds of reviews for some hotels. Wouldn’t it be smart if the reviews it served up to you weren’t simply the most recent, but the most recent by people like you? Well, that’s exactly what’s happening and TripAdvisor is using Facebook to do it.
All over the place people are working to plug in your social graph to make your search queries more relevant to you. This all makes perfect sense to me. I’d far rather consider the merits of staying at hotel based on reviews by people I know or people who are like me.
But what about really specialised stuff? Even if I take into account friends of friends and even friends of friends of friends, sometimes I just won’t be connected to the right people for my network to be useful in helping me find what’s most appropriate for me. If I’m looking for a hotel in Prague, there will doubtless be people in my immediate network who have stayed in the city and whose blog posts, 'likes' and reviews of their Prague hotels can help prioritise more appropriate places for me to stay. But what about my recent trip to Burundi? I had an itinerary organised by the Ministry of Tourism, but if I’d had to construct it from scratch my social network (even as a travel writer) would probably have been of little use. Using the net (there are no guidebooks that I have been able to find) I’d be back to having to rely on Google’s link-based approach to delivering the best search results possible.
And that’s why I think quality, niche content written by experts will outlast the current excitement about social media and the social graph.
In real world terms it’s the same. My friends and friends of friends can often be useful for providing recommendations for say someone to fit a new set of tyres to my car – but when it comes to finding a specialist structural engineer to advise about excavating a new cellar below a house I’m buying, I’m obliged to go back to things like the phone directory and advertisements in local newspapers. And should I come across a feature about building new basements in a local magazine, wow that would be very handy indeed - far more useful than what a friend of a friend who is a builder might be able to tell me.
For content creators this means the focus should be ever more on the really credible, expert stuff. Think about the complicated and usual things about your product or service and ensure you create really well researched and crafted content about them. It will absolutely pay off in the long term.
Anyone seen any particularly good examples of search empowered by social connections really working well?