January 13, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Google's "Search, plus Your World"

Wow. I haven't seen such a flurry of consternation and complaints since Coca-Cola replaced their original formula with "New Coke" decades go.

The Net's abuzz with the sound of SPYW (Search, plus Your World - perhaps an unfortunate acronym) -- Google's new effort to significantly integrate Google+ (G+) with Google Search.

The sense of panic in geekdom over this change can only have been amplified by word that the manufacturer of Twinkies is filing for bankruptcy protection again.

Oh, the horrors! Agony. Agony.

[cue sound of needle scratching across vinyl record]

OK gang. Settle down. Even if real Twinkies vanish, there are plenty of similarly delectable knockoffs, and no matter what you've heard about SPYW, the sky isn't falling.

There are piles of places where you can read about the details of what Search, plus Your World is and how it works.

I'm not going to review or rehash those here.

But a lot of people have been asking me to comment, and I've been playing with SPYW for a couple of days to get a feel for its user experience, so here are a few preliminary thoughts regarding how SPYW works and the controversy surrounding it.

First some facts we can stipulate.

We all know that Google is dominant in search, and some observers seem to feel that this means they should be regulated as if they were a public utility.

Of course they're not a public utility, and there have never been reputable arguments asserting that their current dominance in search was achieved through subterfuge -- which immediately differentiates them from the most commonly quoted comparison of Microsoft, who indeed did use underhanded means to force Windows on the world.

And frankly, one of the aspects that makes legislation like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) so nightmarish is the thought of the U.S. Congress -- perhaps the best example of dysfunctional government in the western world -- essentially dictating search results.

Anyway, the public utility argument is used to try assert that certain actions that would be OK for a non-dominant search engine (like Microsoft's Bing, which is deploying a deep integration with Facebook), are supposedly not OK for Google to do, even with its own services like Google+.

On the other hand, there are critics of SPYW who suggest that if Google had given equal preference to (for example) deep data from Twitter, as they are doing now for G+, there wouldn't be such an outcry. This despite the fact that Google no longer has access to Twitter data at that level, after contract renewal negotiations that would have continued real-time access to tweet streams failed.

So we're faced with a question. Does the fact that Google has far better access to its own G+ postings data than to Twitter postings data mean that Google should be prohibited from optionally featuring G+ postings data to G+ users in Google Search results?

It seems to me that the answer to this question should primarily revolve around user choice.

If you're not a G+ user, or you're not logged-in to Google, your natural (organic) search results are not going to include "personalized from your G+ circles" G+ listings (though public G+ postings, which have long been indexed, may continue to be present in results as usual). If you are logged-in and you are a G+ user, by default you'll see the G+ related listings. These can be enabled or disabled on a search by search basis by controls on the search page, or completely disabled (along with other personalization features such as Web history, though I'm told localization features will still be present) through search settings.

Now, as a heavy G+ user (though with a fairly limited number of people in my G+ circles, just to keep the stream readable for me given the time available) I sometimes am definitely very interested in what my G+ universe of folks has to say about various topics. Seeing these in my Google Search results can be very useful -- sometimes.

I say "sometimes" because in the current implementation, I'm finding that those personal results often aren't terribly useful, mainly because I've already seen most of them over on G+ previously. So I find myself frequently turning off SPYW on a results page to restore the non-personalized listings.

And frankly, I'm experimenting with turning SPYW off entirely (though I'm reluctant to do this long-term yet, since i know that as Google iterates the feature it will certainly improve in relevance).

For other persons, who don't keep track of their G+ stream as closely I do, having those G+ related listings in their search results may routinely be a really big win.

But it's a choice matter. I choose to use Google+, and I appreciate the option of including those listings -- or not -- in my search results. Search is after all just one part of the Google ecosystem that I'm logged into. Keeping these various services completely distinct just wouldn't make sense, either from a business or user experience standpoint.

Critics of the new "circles suggestions" aspect of SPYW, which apparently appears whether or not you're a G+ user, and even if you're not logged in or have disabled personalized results, seem to be on firmer ground with their criticisms.

These suggestions are now appearing in the prime top of page real estate for key searches on the right-hand side above the paid ads (not in the organic, natural search results, it's important to note).

I'm finding these fairly irritating right now, and there's no way I know of to suppress them.

If I search for "music" (logged in or not), I'm presented with circle invites for
Britney Spears and Snoop Dog. Every time. Over and over. I have no interest in
adding either of these persons to my circles, and I would prefer waterboarding to adding Britney. But they keep popping up, and there's not even a way to dismiss them and say "I don't want to see these people again!"

Down below those two display elements are the ads, which I've noticed frequently include Bing. In fact, when I tested this just now, the paid ad above the organic search results in fact was for Bing. So Microsoft shouldn't have anything to complain about in that respect.

But I still want Britney and Snoop suggestions to leave my search results pages, permanently.

Is that level of Google+ promotion in the right-hand results pane -- to non-logged in users in particular -- problematic from a competition standpoint?

I'm not sure. I'm not an antitrust lawyer. Dedicated Google haters will always find something to latch onto, but my gut feeling is that this seems to be pushing the envelope significantly, and in effect perhaps unnecessarily providing red meat to critics at a very sensitive time.

So while I appreciate the desire to promote G+, it's quite possible that this aspect of the services integration is at least ill-advised now, in the current implementation.

A couple of other notes.

Turning off personalization in the search settings disables all personalization except localization, so if you're a user of Web History those signals are also disabled. Being able to more selectively control this would be desirable.

We also need to face the old opt-in, opt-out dilemma. SPYW is enabled by default for logged-in G+ users. Some observers are arguing that it should have been opt-in, though since G+ users have already chosen to use G+, an argument can really be made either way, and as always the ramifications of opt-in vs. opt-out choices can be significantly more complex than they may appear at first glance.

An alternative would have been to default in the G+ users, but to make it even clearer how to turn off personalization through search settings if they wish.

So here's where we end up for the present.

As a G+ user, I appreciate the ability to have G+ related listings optionally in my search results. It's unclear how useful these really are to me, but like the saying goes, "your mileage may vary." There should be a way to turn off the G+ results without disabling Web History personalization. I understand why these are linked, but I don't think it provides the best user experience and control.

I believe the rather aggressive "circle suggestions" to non-logged in users is potentially a real problem. I'm not saying Google shouldn't be able to do this,
but I'm not convinced that it's a good choice, considering the overall environment in which Google finds itself right now. There are times when discretion is indeed the better part of valor.

Finally, I want Britney and Snoop suggestions to get off my results pages, permanently, before I'm forced to throw a boot into a display. As a G+ user, I like getting suggestions about other G+ users to follow within the context of my G+ usage -- but those can be dismissed at my option.

While I certainly do understand the desire to promote G+, those right-hand pane circle suggestions accompanying key Google Search results (again, especially for users who are not logged in) can be annoying, can't be dismissed, and are probably providing antitrust ammunition for Google's adversaries.

So overall, while I believe that most of the loud criticism of Search, plus Your World has been overblown, and that there are most definitely important benefits for users with the integration of Google services, there are relevant aspects of this rollout that could have been handled considerably better.

And Britney, best of luck to ya', but please ... go ... away.


Posted by Lauren at January 13, 2012 12:17 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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