Google Looks for Better Social Search as Rivals Ramp Up

Google (s goog) is slowly finding its social legs and is rolling out a set of improvements to its search product that help it keep pace with rivals, who are increasingly weaving social signals into search results. The latest updates allow Google to include more results created and shared by friends, helping tie Google’s strength in algorithms to the increasingly important world of social media.

It’s not the social layer Google is said to be working on, but it’s another sign that shows Google is figuring out how social fits into its existing properties. The pressure is on the web giant to sort out its strategy in search as rivals like Bing (s msft) and upstarts Blekko, Greplin, Wajam and others bring the fight to Google. Especially with increasing concerns about spam and content farms taking over search results, integrating more relevant social content is becoming even more important in the search game.

Google, if you recall, launched Social Search in 2009, allowing users to see content created by friends at the bottom of their search results. Here’s what the updates include:

  • Now existing content from friends no longer resides on the bottom two search slots but can appear higher up on the page. Users will see their friend’s name attached to a search result.
  • Social search results also now include shared links via Twitter, Flickr and Quora with more sources on the way. This is important, because people share a whole lot more stuff than they create. Facebook, however, isn’t part of the mix right now. More on that later.
  • Users also get more privacy controls so they don’t have to broadcast their various accounts on their Google profile pages. Google seems to be using this as another way to highlight its Google profiles, where users can publicly share information about themselves.

So what will this all look like? Well, when a user searches for something, he might find a blog post or a shared link from a friend mixed high up in the results. Google will be using its algorithm to help determine how high it should place the results based on your connection to a user or how often friends have shared the same link. This further enhances the idea that your search experience will be increasingly personal. Two people may have the same query, but over time, may see diverging results that cater to their history and social connections.

As I mentioned, this is something Google needs to do. Greplin, a new start-up with $4 million in funding, recently opened to the public, allowing users to search across a bunch of online services, from e-mail to Facebook and Twitter. Wajam, another start-up, is also tackling social search by filtering search results on existing search engines. Blekko, an emerging search engine upstart, is also including Facebook “Likes” to search results through Facebook Connect integration. And of course, Bing has signed a deal with Facebook to include “Likes” within a Facebook module in Bing results.

That Google hasn’t included Facebook suggests it hasn’t found agreement with the social network on data sharing, part of a larger battle we’ve covered. But even without that, Google is showing it’s working to figure out social, something that’s been sort of a mystery to the company. It’ll have to do a lot more if it wants to maintain its web dominance. Its algorithms have powered the way for years, but Google now needs to get the way people interact and find information online.

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