why the future of search is social

Do you remember when, at the start of the Internet, there was no Google? There were no search engines as we currently understand them. Yahoo! started as a simple directory of known websites. Who could even put a figure on how many websites there are today? Then along came AltaVista, Google, and other automated search engines based on algorithms. Google is now such a ubiquitous search engine that is it has become a verb. But even the mighty Google is only the second generation of search. The new, third generation of search is social search.
What does this mean? Essentially, social media + search = social search.
Search (i.e. looking stuff up on Google) is the primary form of advertising on the Internet. But it’s a non-intrusive form of advertising. It’s not a billboard or a TV commercial selling at you. It’s people actively looking for information, products and services – and YOU, if you offer what they want, and can be found. That makes it an incredibly powerful form of advertising.
Social search is very democratic. It brings together algorithms, knowledge and people. It is based on the idea that the person who is best placed to rank, review, rate and share content is someone who is an expert in that specific bit of content. The challenge is to enable users to share knowledge with their community in a way that creates a better search experience.
Yahoo! Answers is one recent attempt to combine social media with search. One of the most important types of social search is social bookmarking, where people collect and share their bookmarked websites. del.icio.us is the best-known example of this. Jumptags, which launched at Internet World last week, takes this a stage further, to include bookmarking other forms of media as well as websites. Digg is another example of combining human intelligence with computer algorithms, to make popular content easy to find.
Why is this important?
Well, there is just so much stuff out there. Aside from the huge amount of content produced by commercial publishers, the potential scale of user-generated content, organized, shared and developed by individuals rather than companies, is enormous. Imagine, for a moment, that each person has about 10 pages of content in them per topic or event. This may be in the form of photos, text, blogs, websites, ratings/reviews, podcasts, or any other content type. Here’s the maths part. These figures were suggested by Stephen Taylor, Regional Vice President, Audience Group, Yahoo! Europe, at Internet World last week:
10 pages per person per topic x 5,000 topics per person over a lifetime
= 50,000 pages per person over a lifetime.
7 billion people on the planet = 350 trillion pages of content.
Admittedly, not everyone in the world has Internet access. But you’d be surprised how many do, and how fast it’s growing. See the World Internet Usage stats for yourself. That sort of sheer volume must lead to changes in the way we think about how we search for information.
As knowledge creation – and media creation – becomes an individual sport as well as a corporate one, commercial publishers also need to engage with social search. That means making your content easy to find, easy to share, easy to recommend – and worth recommending in the first place. For book publishers, that includes ensuring your books can be found with Google Book Search (I believe we’re calling this GBS now?) But that’s only second generation. To be really cutting edge, you need to engage with social media and online communities.
Reputation is key here. Your content is not the best because you say it is. It is the best because people who know about the subject say it is.
It’s one of those wisdom of crowds things. The implication for marketers and publishers is that power is shifting from institutions to communities, whose participants benefit from group wisdom. This means starting with the consumer, doing market research, and getting your content right, so that people will want to recommend it. And then making sure it’s easy to find. More on that in later postings.

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Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a content writer, author, screenwriter, lecturer, blogger - and the founder of Publishing Talk. He was previously a publisher for 10 years. Publishing Talk aims to help new and emerging authors write, publish and sell books. Advice is available via the blog and our masterclasses and membership programme. More...