During the last ten years, search engines have basically provided us with information retrieval (IR) from strangers. We have relied on the credibility of these search results based on algorithms determining their relevancy and authority. In turn, content producers learned to optimize their pages to obtain higher page rankings. Over time, satisfied with the premise if 'Google says its so, who's to argue?' we accepted what was delivered. However the need for human interaction is not lost to the 21st Century and the desire to connect through search is evident with the entre' of a new type of IR - appropriately named 'social search.'
Social search combines human intelligence with computer algorithms. Born out of the social networking boom, social search attempts to humanize search results thereby providing users with consumer driven answers to their queries. Considering that 50% of queries go unanswered, social search could be the biggest breakthrough since page ranking. Social search is really the technology derivative of asking friends and colleagues in addition to the 'wisdom of crowds' for recommendations.
Social search guided by a human search engine uses participation of men and women to filter the search results and assist users in clarifying their search request. The goal is to provide users with a limited number of relevant results, as opposed to traditional search engines that often returns a large number of results that may or may not be relevant.
So what caused the reemergence of 'human interaction?' Back in 2000 when search engines moved libraries from brick and mortar to digital enclaves, it is interesting to note that a survey, The Consumer Daily Question Study, determined that 'Internet/Search Engines' were the number one resource for IR, over 'Friends, Family & Neighbors.'
Search Queries based on Resources
(Interesting side note: 'Libraries' in the year 2000 had already lost significant ground, only garnering 3.6% of the total)
In a Search Engine Land report, Danny Sullivan puts these findings into an historical perspective, "This might not seem such a big deal today, especially for those who have grown up with search engines. But I’m fairly confident that for thousands of years, before search engines existed, the top resource many people consulted for advice on questions would have been friends and family."
Flash forward ten years - now that most of us are fairly comfortable utilizing search engines and social media, we are meshing that old paradigm with today's new tools.
Google acquired the social search engine Aardvark (originally founded in 2007 by ex-Googlers) on February 11th for a cool $50 million and added it to its Labs. The platform permits its now 90,000+ users ask questions and recieve results from humans in sometimes less than 5 minutes. More importantly and bringing us full circle, these humans are members of the users's extended social network; i.e., 'friends, followers, family and business contacts.'
Users can submit questions directly to Aardvark's search site Vark.com via e-mail, instant messaging, Twitter or Apple iPhones. Aardvark analyzes questions, and forwards them to the most appropriate person in the user's e-mail contacts and social networks for review, recommendations and responses.
Some have compared 'Vark' as its not called to 'Yahoo Answers on steroids.' Using Vark's profiling algorithms, the engine continually churn through answers and queries to assess if the responses are quick and useful, determining if one's circle of friends in their social graph are also 'experts.' In essence, the major difference according to a white paper published by Damon Horowitz and Sepandar D. Kamvar is to find the 'right person' to satisfy queries, versus the 'right document.' Further, while trust in a traditional search engine is based on 'authority', in a social search engine like Vark, its now based on 'intimacy.'
By contrast, Yahoo Answers is limited by having users post questions to defined categories in hopes that another person will be watching that category to answer the question.
Similarly, Mahalo reaches out across the Internet for visitors and searchers to answer forum-like topics. While users are touched by human interaction, the 'intimacy' factor is not a component of this search engine.
Mahalo.com which translates to "thank you" in Hawaiian is a human-powered search engine (web directory) that was launched in public beta back in October 2007. It has evolved over the years and now offers other services such as Mahalo Answer (community generated question & answers), Mahalo How To (instructional Q & A), Mahalo Tasks (allowing community members to help improve Mahalo’s site in exchange for payment in ”Mahalo Dollars”).
There are some distinct differences with Aardvark which pits the 'wisdom of the known crowd' versus the 'wisdom of the crowd at large.' For Mahalo, 'intimacy' is replaced by anonymity and capitalistic rewards, i.e. that is 'cash' payments for the best answers.
Dealing with strangers versus friends, users on Mahalo feel they don't run the risk of violating privacy issues. However, on Vark, users choose their privacy settings where they willingly let their circle of friends know the topics they are open to discussing and the number of queries they are willing to accept in a day's time. Of course, the downside with this formula is that it limits the number of people who may answer your question.
However, on the flip of this, while Mahalo is open to all users, the quantity of answers may lack quality or the specificity that only an inner circle of friends and followers can provide. Additionally, Vark's response time of five minutes or less is something that Mahalo cannot compete against.
As far as response-time, ChaCha is comparable to Vark. First launched in January 2007, it like Mahalo hires guides to answer incoming questions. Started as a text messaging-based search service, users can simply text a question to 242242 (spells ‘ChaCha’) or call 1-800-2ChaCha (800-224-2242) to ask questions. Today, the service also has a presence on Twitter and a David Guetta Featured ChaCheeFacebook.
ChaCha is best at responding to questions that have definitive answers, such as "What is the weather in Miami, Florida?" or "What is a great Thai restaurant in Manhattan?" The site also differs from both Vark and Mahalo by enlisting celebrities to be the “Featured ChaChee of the Week,” assigned to answer questions from fans. The Chachee designated as the first for the program was grammy-winning artist David Guetta.
A new entry to social search is Formspring.me launched in November, 2009 by CEO Ade Olonah.
To date, it has gain significant traction having received 50 million unique visitors just in the last 30 days. Users can find their friends by searching the Formspring.me site, via email address, or with Facebook or Twitter.
When users register for Formspring, the site sets the tone with seed questions like:
While Mahalo and ChaCha favor interaction with strangers, and Vark favors friends, Formspring is open to both. Allowing people to express their personalities by asking and answering personal questions — it mirrors the exchanges many people have when they meet a new person for the first time. So Formspring users are likely to ask, and answer questions such as what is their favorite beer, the first concert they attended and whether they believe in the afterlife.
- If you could ask Barack Obama one question what would it be?
- What song do you want played at your funeral?
- If your house was on fire and you could only grab three things, what would they be?
However Formspring is also recommended for anyone who wishes to ask questions of their friends and people they are following, and answer questions about themselves as well.
Social search will not entirely replace the traditional technical-driven search but it does open up yet another avenue for Internet marketers. One of the more exciting aspects is that SMBs are better positioned to gain from the social search frontier. The opportunities for any or all of these search engines to align themselves with location-based social networks is great, and I am sure in a year's time you might see some partnerships, if not outright acquisitions.
Also don't overlook the power of Google to meld Aardvark into its existing Google Social Search and Google Buzz products to take this category of search to another level, yet still. The first step in an ongoing effort to make Google Search as social as the Web itself, Google Social Search (now out of Google Labs) is a new feature that surfaces public web content from your friends and online contacts as well. It is currently available on google.com for all signed-in users.
So what's old is new again. But while social search brings us full circle in reaching out for human interaction, where does that put Web 3.0? Semantic Technology is based on turning the Internet into one humongous Internet assembly line with content generated by 'machines' versus 'humans.' Is Social Search our last gasp at connecting with our fellow man, or is the next phase of Internet Evolution up for a marked detour? Sounds like conjecture for another blog. Let me know your thoughts on the subject, Reader?