Search Comes Full Circle?

Reading the search headlines these days, it may seem like we’ve gone a long way to get right back where we started: human-generated search. Well, not exactly where we started; these new breed of search engines aren’t human-powered in the same way DMOZ and the original Yahoo were, they’re algorithmic search engines that have been human-enhanced by allowing searchers to rank or vote on results, and even to tag or comment on them—much like social bookmarking sites like Digg and Reddit do.

And they are growing in popularity, with some of the biggest names in search behind them. Jason Calcanis, entrepreneur poster-boy and SEO public enemy #1, recently introduced an update to Mahalo , his human-powered engine, that adds aggregation of user profiles and pages from various social networks . Matt Cutts hinted that Google was integrating social interaction into results and we’re beginning to see Google test it. And Google’s best friend, Jimmy Wales, is making headway with Wikia Search, his admittedly “poor” but improving search engine that integrates the philosophies of Wikimedia and user-generated content.

So are human-enhanced search engines really the future? And if they are, is that a good thing?

As with any search engine, the first criterion that needs to be addressed is relevance. Do social search engines like Sproose, which promises “user-improved” results, really provide better results than regular algorithmic search engines? Looking at most social search engines, including Sproose, Mahalo, Wikia, ChaCha, EarthFrisk and Eurekster’s Swickis, it seems that the answer is generally “no.” Social search engines, or any search engine counting on human participation, need a critical mass of said human participation, which none of these engines seem to have (at least, as of yet). For the most part, each engine returns nearly identical results to Google, with the exception of some highly popular search queries.

The second thing to look at is the trustworthiness of the results, or—to be more frank—the excess or lack of spam therein. Do social search engines prevent SEO spam by giving more power to their audience and less to SEO professionals, or do they open themselves up to more spam by allowing regular (registered) users to directly influence rankings? In an ideal world, social search engines would police themselves from spam the same way social bookmarking sites and networks do—by counting on their user base. Social search would then solve the problem of aggressive SEOs pushing irrelevant sites to the top of the SERPs and create an ideal, democratic system of ranking search results.

But it’s not an ideal world. These social engines have such small user bases that nearly all search spam that exists in traditional engines gets through to them as well. And on pages where users have contributed, such as gambling and SEO queries, social spam unique to these new breed of engines is rife. If anything, these engines are the worst of both worlds from a searcher’s perspective.

But that doesn’t mean the idea of social, human-empowered/enhanced search should be abandoned. The theory of allowing users to remove obvious spam and to optimize results pages based on true semantic knowledge (they know what they’re looking for, after all) is the light at the end of the tunnel that can truly propel search to its idyllic usefulness. But it is unlikely that a minor player will get there. Social products survive on a mass of willing users. Google, Yahoo and Live Search have those users. No one else does, and it is unlikely that others will acquire them. For social search to really work, Google is going to need to push its experiment beyond Google Labs (which it seems they are doing)—or Yahoo and Microsoft will need to step up to the plate. One thing is for sure: whoever gets there first will be tomorrow’s search leader.

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