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Google SearchWiki Makes Search Wonky

by Graham Huber on February 8, 2010

searchwiki-thumb“Digg for Google” – The elevator pitch sounds promising enough. User-voted search results on Google. Why not?

Socially-ranked bookmarking sites like Digg and Reddit have exploded in popularity for good reason. These sites enable their users to parry their search interests down to a few gems of peer-reviewed goodness, by trimming the fat on queries that would typically otherwise return millions.

The net result for social bookmarking is a very efficient, relevant, customizable and often entertaining search experience. Users can find what they’re interested in quickly, and become empowered to have a say in voting on what content makes it big – sometimes even effecting real world change, such as the now-infamous saga of Mr. Splashy Pants.

Evidently, that kind of engaging user experience is enough to make the reigning King of Search invest in a little catch-up: Last November, Google launched SearchWiki, an experimental attempt to embed live user rankings into Google’s search queries. Google explains.

Soo… Critical new feature? Or thinly-veiled grab to win back users from the rising stars of social bookmarking?

Either way, the results are dubious. One reviewer quipped, “Google SearchWiki should be available automatically if you are logged in to a Google account, and it can be recognized by the visual clutter added to the search results”.

Sigh. It’s true. Google doesn’t do pretty.

While unmatched in producing ridiculously efficient feats of engineering, many feel that Google’s aesthetics are, well… no Apple. As discriminating users know, usability (including aesthetics) is critical to any web experience. Google Wave, another of Google’s experimental forays in social networking, demonstrates how a great idea can flounder under the clutter of an awkward implementation.

When enabled, every Google query sports a not-so-sexy pair of neon green arrows that allow users to “promote” or “demote” search results. Comments from other users are appended to each query, adding to the clutter and nearly doubling the word count. Your search results can be now rearranged however you see fit, but your changes are only visible to you. To what end is unclear – and therein lies the trouble.

Like many of Google’s offerings, SearchWiki is function over form. It’s executed with all the finesse of a clever math solution – for a problem that may not need solving. Shortly after its release, the new service was critically panned as “extraneous” and “irrelevant.” Despite working exactly as advertising, many users question the need to rank or rearrange Google’s queries in the first place.

Isn’t Google’s search juju already doing the work of ordering the most relevant results anyway? And isn’t the name of the SEO game for users to optimize their search results by Google’s algorithm – not the other way around? The actual impact of SearchWiki on SEO is nil, by the way: any personal rank customization has no impact on global page rankings.

The whole mystique of SEO seems undermined by awkward questions about SearchWiki’s purpose: if you’ve frequently seen a search result (to have subsequently rearranged it), why wouldn’t you just bookmark the site instead? If you already know the content you are seeking (thus having voted it to the top of your results), why are you searching for it? And who are these random users leaving comments anyway? Can I trust them?

The true power of user feedback for social bookmarking is the social community it’s built on through a particular user base. Wars have been waged over the differences between Digg users and Reddit users. Ultimately, the value of these sites is that anyone can find their preferred niche when the user dynamics and expectations are clear.

Google, on the other hand, seems to have opted to be “everything to everyone” with SearchWiki, an ill-advised marketing faux pas that usually ends up reaching no one in particular, while kind of annoying everyone. With billions of results and reams of potentially spammy comments, what will be the value of individual user input on search results?

These concerns did not go unheard. After a much-hyped involuntary public launch, Google has since gracefully downgraded the experiment to an optional feature, instead of turned on by default, in response to unimpressive feedback.

Maybe that’s missing the point.

SearchWiki seems primarily designed for repeat searchers (some estimates as high as 40% of all queries!), who use Google’s semi-consistent results as an unofficial bookmarking service. SearchWiki succeeds well in making results more personalized and relevant for these users, as well as officially creating a way to save common searches or favourites to a list. The ability to attach notes to particular results may also be a boon for researchers. While blogs have offered a real-time voice for their users for well over a decade now, commenting marks new territory for Google into an interactive public social media dimension that has so far been unrepresented in their search data. There is speculation about whether public comments and/or rankings via SearchWiki will eventually factor into SEO.

The true potential of SearchWiki may actually be for Google itself. Google is in the business of information. Specifically, for advertising. Useful or annoying, SearchWiki no doubt generates more valuable metrics for Google on what sites people are paying attention to, and why. It may very well be the “unsocial” private bookmarking and self-initiated reorganization of Google’s generated results, as well as public commenting trends, that become most useful to Google’s “big picture” of user behaviour and motivations, ultimately to more effectively serve you ads.

The science of SEO is shifting from a quantitative crunch of raw query and click-through logs into a new qualitative era of socially-powered metrics… It’s yet to be seen how exactly user input will come to affect Google’s page ranking – if at all. Love it, or hate it, SearchWiki is one to keep your eye on as a fascinating foray into the future implications of social search.

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{ 6 comments }

Mighty_Max February 17, 2010 at 6:43 PM

I might be in the minority, but I’ll take function over form in this particular situation… I rather have Google stay as it is then get prettied up and lose some of it’s functionality…

As for the voting up and down thing, I think that lends itself to all kinds of evil complications with people buying votes and what not if it launches in a full fledged manner like Digg and the others…

MixedUp February 22, 2010 at 8:51 PM

Search rating makes me a little uncomfortable. If Google turns into Reddit or some other site like that, all those people who obsess over making their opinions stick out on the internet will probably start warping search results.

BatMan February 23, 2010 at 6:45 PM

This would certainly add an interesting aspect to page ranking and things like that. I don’t think that Google could really put a lot of stock in what the average Tom, Dick and Harry vote up and down though – or at least I hope they don’t.

Rusher September 10, 2010 at 3:18 PM

I’m really not familiar with Redditt at all. Is it as popular as Digg is?

Stoddard September 16, 2010 at 9:25 AM

It’s a little strange to read that Google’s main interest is in advertising, as opposed to enhancing human knowledge. But, I guess everyone has to make a living.

WrigleyF February 15, 2011 at 2:36 PM

Yes, but I think having these metrics will help Google improve their products, so I’m sure it’s not all about making money.

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