Why the future of search is social

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Where you are should determine the search results you get

For a long time search has been about you and nothing but you.

When you go to Google, Bing, Ask or any of the other search engines they only take into account what you, and you alone, are concerned with.

Type in a keyword or two, or three and the results returned will be based pretty much on that scant amount of text.

In some cases this can be enhanced by letting your past search results influence what you are looking for now, but the emphasis is largely on the individual.

All that is about to change. Both Google and Bing are starting to develop ways to make your social context influence the results you are sent.

Social context is a fancy way of saying your friends, family and the virtual acquaintances you pay attention to online.

"If you look at today's consumer web, by and large up to this point the search experience is designed as if you are the only person on the planet," said Qi Lu, head of Bing at Microsoft.

That helps to explain, he said, why the results people get back when they type a few words into a search box are far from what that person was really looking for.

What this reveals, he said, is the importance of subjectivity in search.

"A search result can be good for you but for others it might not be relevant at all," he said. As an example, he said, take the search terms "cheap running shoes".

"The perfect answer depends on your income level," he said.

Tom Stocky, one of the managers of Google's search products, said social context could radically change the results someone sees.

"Take the recent Wall Street movie," he said, "If a friend of yours blogged about it, chances are you will be more interested in that than a review by someone you don't know."

Mr Stocky said social context would get more important as people do more and more searching while they are out and about.

Context is hugely important for mobile, said Mr Stocky. Some of that context, such as location and time of day can be found quite easily. Social context could enhance it further by guiding people via the likes and dislikes of their friends.

Finding friends

Before now, said Mr Lu, search engines have struggled to find a way to reveal who a searcher is and what their lifestyle is like.

Social networks have changed all that because they are all about linking up with people you know and sharing opinions and information about what you are up to.

Image caption,
Context is all important as search gets increasingly mobile

Bing has signed a deal with Facebook to tap into the connections between its 500 million strong membership.

This will mean, said Mr Lu, is that a person's social context will become a filter through which the view the wider web. For those that are happy for Bing to use the data they generate about their friends, subjects they like and places they go, their search results will be reflected through the lens of this data.

"If your social context is with you then the experience will be dramatically better," said Mr Lu.

The initiative is starting to be rolled out via invites through Facebook and is currently only available in the US. Other territories will follow soon.

The opinions and influences of friends and family could be very important when people turn to search engines before making a decision of some sort - be that a book to buy, restaurant to visit or sites to see.

To make any decision, said Mr Lu, people typically take notice of popular, expert and trusted opinions.

Before now search engines have been good at helping people find out what is popular as well as the opinions of experts who can give insights into what it is that makes something worth watching or worth ditching.

What's been missing, he said, are the words and views of those we trust.

Some of those views could be explicit and written on a blog or tweet, others could be implicit and be revealed by someone's purchasing patterns.

While Google does not have access to Facebook's data about its members, it too is keen to get that social filter tweaking your search results. It, and many other search engines, have deals with firms that specialise in tracking what you do and where you go online to build up a profile of your like and dislikes.

Via small files stored on a person's PC called tracking cookies, these firms aggregate your web-browsing experience into a datastream that can be consulted to tailor web services or searches to your needs.

Social context and a host of other augmentations, said Mr Stocky, are all part of a grander plan to make search gradually disappear. In the future instead of typing words into a search box and getting results the information people need will appear when they need it. Be that if they are planning a wedding or just a night out.

"We do not want users to have to think about search," he said. "We want the interface to be invisible."

"We try to build for what does not exist yet- and so far the world has continued to catch up."

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