Technologizer

Search, Plus Your World: Google’s Risky Gambit

The web giant just mashed up its search engine and social network -- and the results so far are unsatisfying.

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Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Even if I accept the notion that Search, Plus Your World reflects only a smidge of my world, I find its current incarnation makes search results less pertinent rather than more so. Google’s algorithm, which understands the web so well, doesn’t have much of a clue about Google+ content.

When I search for “sports,” for instance, the first thing that Google gives me is a link to 60 Google+ items by my friends, all of which relate at least vaguely to sports. But they’re not 60 fantastic items; they feel utterly random and ephemeral. Which makes sense: much of Google+, like all social networks, is random and ephemeral. It’s not stuff that deserves to cut in line in front of essential sites such as ESPN and Yahoo Sports.

(MORE: Google to Twitter: You Quit Us, We Didn’t Quit You)

I also don’t understand why my Google results now show me my own Google+ updates. They consist entirely of things I already know, and are therefore the last thing I want to see when I search Google.

It’s important to remember that even before SPYW, Google search had been growing increasingly personalized. The search engine already uses cues such as your location and its knowledge about sites you tend to frequent to custom-tailor your results. If our reactions to SPYW differ, it’s because we’re seeing our own one-of-a-kind Googles.

My reaction to SPYW is simple: I don’t like it. My problem isn’t that it annoys Google’s competitors, or that it’s self-promotional or even that it might be illegal. It just isn’t up to Google’s usual standards of quality and relevance. The company is famous for labeling its products as betas; this feels more like an alpha.

I know that Google’s co-founder and new CEO Larry Page is an impatient guy. I understand why the company is trying so very hard to supercharge its search engine with social juice. I’m open to seeing where that leads. But for Google, personalization isn’t paramount. Relevancy is. So far, Search, Plus Your World mostly serves to prove that true personalization is tough — and even if you make search results more personal, that doesn’t necessarily make them better.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.

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