So is SPYW part of an evil attempt by the “Don’t-be-evil” company to rig search so that it always points back to Google? Or is it a legitimate response to a market need?
I’d argue, it’s a bit of both.
Social search has been the Holy Grail of the search business — people have been looking for it since the early days of search.
(Disclosure: I worked on social search when I was at AOL. I’m also an inventor on an AOL patent that may cover parts of social search.)
The premise of social search is simple: Content shared by your friends is more relevant than content shared by random people you don’t know. It also fits the mental model that many use in the real world: When you’re looking for a referral for a plumber or a dentist, you start by asking your friends. If that doesn’t work, you turn to search.
People have been doing a form of social search in a very inefficient way by using Facebook status updates to pose questions to friends. When I’m about to go on a trip, I’ll post a status message asking friends for advice on things to do and places to eat. For each post, I usually get 5-10 responses.
This annoys a friend who works at Yelp, who almost always responds that I should check Yelp instead. But one thumbs up from someone I know is worth a hundred positive reviews from random strangers. I can quickly evaluate the result based on what I know about the responder. If my friend Dariusz recommends a restaurant, I know I can go there without thinking twice because he’s a foodie and our tastes overlap. But I also know to discard the recommendations of another friend whose favorite place is Chick-fil-A.
With SPYW, Google automates this process and makes it instantaneous. Instead of relying on users to actively respond to my request, I get access to all of the previous activity they’ve shared. If a second- or third-degree friend shares content about a topic, I instantly have access to it.
Think of it as word-of-mouth on steroids. In the real world, I might remember the travel histories of 5 to 7 of my close friends. With SPYW, I have access to the travel-related content of hundreds of friends. There’s an ancillary benefit: It helps to strengthen my relationships with those friends because I can discover shared interests.
So SPYW is a great product and represents a very important milestone in search. But a lot of people aren’t happy about it. Luther Lowe, Yelp’s director of business outreach and government affairs, expressed a concern many share when he tweeted:
Lowe’s tweet was retweeted by Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, who was a star witness in September’s hearings about Google and antitrust before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights.