Two weeks ago, Google launched Search Plus Your World. Since then, Google has faced strong criticisms that SPYW is making its search relevancy worse and favoring its Google+ social network too much. Not so, says Google search chief Amit Singhal.
Most Google users are happy, Singhal said. Of course, Search Plus Your World isn’t perfect, he admits, but it’ll improve. As for including content from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, Google’s open to that, as long as long-term deals can be reached that give Google faith it can build new features that will last.
I talked today with Singhal — the “Google Fellow” who oversees all of Google’s search algorithms — about the reaction to Search Plus Your World. Here’s the Q&A, questions in bold, answers from Singhal indented below them.
What’s been your overall reaction or thoughts as you’ve seen all the debate about Search Plus Your World?
The overall takeaway that I have in my mind is that people are judging a product and an overall direction that we have in the first two weeks of a launch, where we are producing a product for the long term.
We’re clearly not done. The product is not complete. It will improve, and we are going to add more things to it. We — Google — always launch products and learn from our launches.
Let me also add one thing. Here is something that I’ve been noticing. The user feedback we have been getting has been almost the other side of the reaction we’ve seen in the blogosphere. The users who have seen this in the wild are liking it, and our initial data analysis is showing the same.
With Universal Search or Google Instant, there were more initial complaints, then even later, people were delighted with it.
NOTE: Earlier this week, I was reviewing Google’s web search support forums myself. There really isn’t any massive outcry as we’ve seen with other launches, such as when Google Reader integrated Google+ sharing last year.
There are two main changes that Search Plus Your World introduced. One was the ability to search through privately-shared content along with public content. Some have written they dislike this. Your reaction?
Every time a real user is getting those results, they really are delighted. Given how personal this product is, you can only judge it based on personal experiences or by aggregate numbers you can observe through click-through.
Like everything else, we will improve the rankings and so on. But out of the gate, whereas we had limited users to train this system with, I’m actually very happy with the outcome of the personal results.
How about the concerns that Google+ is being favored too much?
Once again, the blogosphere, they’re just judging the book by the cover.
NOTE: I then mentioned there have been some examples of these blogged, such as by John Battelle, Mat Honan and just today, Tom Blue wrote about how personalized results made searches for things like “television” or “knives” seem to have irrelevant listings. Singhal then said….
I wouldn’t disagree that there may be a few examples out there where our system could be better, but there are millions of queries where our system could be better.
But specifically, there are concerns Google+ is being favored too much not in the privately-shared results but rather as suggestions in the search box or in the new People & Pages results.
This goes back to the point we have been making, that we only have access to personal content and personally shared content from Google Plus. We don’t have that access from other companies.
But what about the Don’t Be Evil tool launched this week, showing that you can create People & Pages results that do go beyond Google+ content.
This is where I’m saying most people are jumping to a conclusion based on the first two weeks of the product. We’re designing a product which it will work for all individuals. It will have identities as a fundamental ingredient of search and relationships as another fundamental ingredient of search.
All this debate is centered around these very popular people out there, and what you could have done for them, and what makes the most sense. But when you’re developing a product, you don’t want to develop it for one segment of the population.
I’ve not seen the debate that I have a [personal] friend named Ben Smith, and when I try to search for him, I get bad results. If you actually build a product only for popular people, then it undermines what we are trying to do. You can’t build a product that behaves differently for one class of people then differently for the real relationships that matter for you.
I feel like this point has not been emphasized enough. People have gotten stuck on these very popular names, and no one has been focused on the cool part of the product where you can find people you care about.
But the People & Pages section does seem focused on famous people or big companies right now.
This is the first two weeks of the product. We have designed for the future of the product. We have designed a product not just for how it works for today, and what we really want is for it to work for tomorrow. Going forward, we’d be interested in doing things like if you’re looking for a destination, we’d like to present to you people that you know who may have something to say about that destination.
People are coming to a conclusion about the product today, within the first two weeks, and they’re not fully seeing the potential where we can build this product around real identities and real relationships.
Is what we have now in People & Pages a promotion for Google+ or search results meant to be more than pushing Google+?
What we are thinking about that product is that if you’re interested in something, who are the people you are potentially related to that you should know about? If they have shared things with you, that’s the obvious thing. It’s easier to build the early system with popular people, but that’s just the beginning of the product.
But how about now? Is this more a Google+ promotional unit?
We don’t think of this as a promotional unit now. This is a place that you would find people with real identities who would be interesting for your queries.
Currently, that place I would admit is occupied by really popular people. So what we are trying to do with this product is indeed bring that aspect that there’s this real society out there that you should know about.
Why not show the additional social links there? For example, you show Britney Spears with her Google+ page in a search for “music.” She links to her Twitter and Facebook accounts from her Google+ page. Couldn’t those be listed as alternative links within People & Pages?
If people click on her Google+ page, those links are available on her About page. Once again, this is possible for us [to maybe show alternative links] because we know much more about the real identities on Google Plus. We can’t provide that for other [lesser known] people.
But what if the people I really want to know about are on those other social networks?
Now I go back to watching how people are acting [with Search Plus Your World]. For example, if someone is not active on Google+, indeed, we shouldn’t be showing their very old posts. That’s one big lesson I’ve learned from watching this in the wild. We’re learning how we can improve the product. We’re already starting to launch some of these improvements as we speak.
What do you need from companies like Twitter and Facebook to integrate them into Search Plus Your World?
Fundamentally, what we learned with our great Realtime Search product is that once you build a great product that users love, then someone else can decide the fate of that product [because when the Twitter deal wasn't renewed, the Google's Realtime Search service depended so much on Twitter that it had to be closed].
That was a very bad experience for Google’s users, and it was a bad experience for our teams. They put their heart and souls into building a great product, just to see that go to waste.
We’re very open to incorporating information from other services, but that needs to be done on terms that wouldn’t change in a short period of time and make our products vanish.
What if you got the Twitter firehose of data without needing a deal. Would that work?
The question that comes down to is under what terms all that’s under. I’m just very wary of building a product where the terms can be changed.
But what if you were given all the posts that people make, no deal needed, just full access to the firehose. Would that be enough?
There’s more to it. A good product can only be built where we understand who’s who and who is related to whom. Relationships are also important alongside content. To build a good product, we have to do all types of processing. But fundamentally, it’s not just about content. It’s about identity, relationships and content. Anything else trivializes a very hard product.
What about if you were also given a feed about identities and relationships. Who someone is, all their social connections that are made public?
We’re very open to talking to all the parties on what does it take to build a proper identity product for users, with proper relationships managed.
Wasn’t something like the Open Social Graph API supposed to provide this? Or aren’t there these type of standards already?
I wish there were such standards that were widely adopted out there. One problem we already have observed is there are all types of link spam connections on Google Plus. We have to develop sophisticated analysis, say if someone posts with a particular pattern, we can tell they aren’t a real person.
There’s a lot more. It’s not just about content. It’s about identity, and when you start talking about these things and what it takes to build this, the data needed is much more than we can publicly crawl.
That’s the interview. On a personal note, I’ve viewed the debate around Search Plus Your World as perhaps an opportunity to break the stalemate that’s existed between Facebook and Google for years over sharing data, as well as resolve the loss of Twitter data that happened last year.
Both Facebook and Twitter have real reasons to fear that Google — with its own Google+ social network — might use their data in a way that would threaten their own businesses.
However, both Facebook and Twitter also have good reasons for wanting to be better included in Google’s search engine. Similarly, Google’s search engine would benefit by having more social content within it, as well as a better understanding of social relationships.
That also means I think Google’s search engine would benefit if it could socially connect with any social network, not just Google Plus. I especially want to see the Google search engine continuing to do what I’ve depended on it to do, list the best content from across the entire web, regardless of where it is located.
I covered the strange balancing act Google has to walk between its social network and its search engine at the end of my article about the Don’t Be Evil tool from Facebook and Twitter that launched this week.
As for the balancing act Facebook and Twitter face with Google, I covered more about that — and some potential solutions — in my other post from earlier this this week: A Proposal For Social Network Détente.
Please consider reading both of those articles to understand more about these issues. There’s also related background reading below.
Related: Twitter-Google Deal
- Google Launches Real Time Search Results
- As Deal With Twitter Expires, Google Realtime Search Goes Offline
- Google Realtime Search & The Aftermath Of The Google-Twitter Split
- Twitter Renews Deal With Bing; Google Deal Remains MIA
Related: Facebook-Google Data Dispute
- Facebook On Social Search: ‘We Want To Work With Everybody’
- Facebook: You’ve No Right To Export Email Addresses (Unless It’s To Yahoo & Microsoft)
- Google & Facebook: If You’re So Smart, Work It Out!
- How Facebook Enables The Google Social “Scraping” It’s Upset About
- Google To Close Social Graph API, Not OpenSocial
Related: Google’s Search Plus Your World
- Google’s Results Get More Personal With “Search Plus Your World”
- Schmidt: Google+ Not Favored, Happy To Talk Twitter & Facebook Integration
- Twitter Cries Foul Over Google “@WWE” Search, But Google Still Beats Bing
- “Don’t Be Evil” Tool — Backed By Facebook & Twitter — Shows Google’s “Search Plus Your World” Can Go Beyond Google+
- FAQ: What’s The Debate About Google’s Search Plus Your World?
- A Proposal For Social Network Détente