Will Social Media Kill Search As We Know It?

Bing's integration of Facebook's social graph was seen by many as a big step forward for social search. On the other hand, it could be just another futile attempt to protect existing business models from the continuous disruption of social media.

Bing’s integration of Facebook data in its search results was seen by many as a big step forward for social search. On the other hand, it could be just another futile attempt to protect existing business models from the continuous disruption of social media.

I’m not the first to consider search as taking a hit from social media and, quite frankly, I’m not totally confident in my sense of how it will evolve over the next few years. But there are a number of indicators that web search – the “one-size fits all” set of results served to users from engines such as Google and Bing – will be, at best, marginalized.

The convergence never happened

John and Jane Surfer want to find whatever they’re seeking across the continually expanding universe of data. They are not willing to pay directly, but are accepting of advertising and promoted content as the cost of this service. Will they have long-term loyalty to a particular, free search engine? Fuggedaboutit! New apps (checking out Blekko?) have great appeal; why wait for an upgrade when you can switch?

Are John and Jane locked into going to one source for all of their discovery? Hardly. Granular applications (Yelp comes to mind) enable users to more rapidly hone in on the information they seek with fewer distractions than full-up search.

I agree with Augie Ray that, “what my friends do and think is more important to my information gathering and decisions than what the entire world does and thinks.” Though there has got to be a better way to conduct social search without the noise of catch-all search results.

Ownership is the new sharing

The change in Google’s Terms of Service requiring reciprocal sharing of user data demonstrates the value of that data. Search engine companies are no longer the benevolent despots creating order in the data wilderness. They’re big businesses monetizing their efforts – and there’s nothing wrong with that. And Google may be thrilled by Facebook’s, at least initial, refusal to reciprocate.

Until now, search engines have differentiated themselves primarily through their search methodologies and user interfaces, resulting in see-sawing of features. What can significantly set one search platform apart from the others is the underlying data. Selling or withholding data has been has been a profitable business model for a long time and may get better. Facebook – now caretaker of massive amounts of personal and business data – has the least to gain from sharing.

Closed is the new open

Common wisdom is that the “old” AOL perished because it was a closed system in an increasingly open Internet universe. Facebook is also a relatively closed eco-system that is harnessing technologies AOL couldn’t even imagine to extend its platform across the net. It’s episodic rollout of features and functions indicates they might not be the most reliable of partners. Today they might need Bing. But tomorrow?

Vidar Brekke suggests that with search going social, “You can’t be top of natural search results without being part of the Open Graph and having your pages Liked.” I do not want to portray Facebook as the Death Star – it’s a business that is being run smarter all the time. However, if its algorithms edit what you see when you think you are looking at all “most recent” posts, might Facebook “game” what they present to search engines in exchange for, say, money?

Users are increasingly data locavores

The majority of tourists trying to find their way around (or out of) my Greenwich Village neighborhood are navigating with physical maps. The utility of location-aware search, fed, in large part, by user generated content, will tip the balance to the use of smart phones. Just like the natives do.

Usage data may not yet show that mobile users are abandoning search platforms, but it seems inevitable as the apps get easier and smarter.

So, what’s next?

As I suggested at the top of this post, any prediction I make may be just as wrong as most of those made about technology and media over the past half century. And there are certainly other factors at play, including the search engine optimization industry continuing to direct the focus of marketers to their offerings.

Many users want search engines to “read their minds” and serve up the perfect result. Others want to have choices, such as, I suspect, the Millennials who are charting the course of social media. The best way to filter for both categories of users on mobile devices is special purpose applications. Apps on a mobile are like bookmarks on the desktop.

Search functionality will continue to be essential and relevant; to users, however, the reflexive act of “Googling” when they are in discover mode may soon be replaced by first looking in the sock draw for a pair of socks and the sweater drawer for a sweater.