Last week, the attention of the technology press turned — as it always does in January — to Las Vegas. As usual, the Consumer Electronics Show filled the town to the bursting point with new gizmos of all kinds. But the news with the greatest long-term potential to shake up tech as we know it emanated from Mountain View, California, and it didn’t have anything to do with gadgets. It was Google’s announcement that it’s begun to add a new social dimension to its eponymous, market-dominating search engine — a twist that it calls “Search, Plus Your World.”
For now, at least, what Google is doing with SPYW is stirring information from its Google+ social network into the gumbo of links that makes up its search results. For some searches, results will now be preceded by a link to updates and photos from your Google+ friends (assuming you have any) relating to your query; these items may also be woven into the results themselves. For some, a list on the right-hand side of the screen will recommend Google+ users who relate to the query you entered. And when you start to type into the search box, Google may suggest that you visit the profile of Google+ friends or high-profile users whose names match the characters you’ve entered.
The fact that these features have arrived isn’t the least bit startling. Melding Google+ with the world’s most popular search engine is Google’s most potent weapon in its ongoing battle for web supremacy with the world’s most popular social network, Facebook. And the very name “Google+” indicates that Google sees the service not as something distinct from Google search, but rather as its future.
I was, however, surprised by the intensity of the instant backlash against Google’s decision to turn its search engine into a billboard for Google+. One Google+ competitor, Twitter, is openly agitated about Google’s favoritism for its own social network. Google gurus Steven Levy and Danny Sullivan both appear to be wary of the change. (Levy says that a search engine, like Caesar’s wife, must appear to be above reproach, and that SPYW is an apparent conflict of interest that takes Google “into dangerous territory.”)
Many pundits have raised the most infamous example of a big tech company tying a fledgling product to a market-dominating one. That would be Microsoft’s decision in the mid-1990s to give away its Internet Explorer browser with Windows. The move brutalized browser pioneer Netscape, but it also led to the epic legal tussle known as The United States v. Microsoft. Google could face similar scrutiny: The FTC, which was already investigating the search giant on antitrust grounds, now says it’s looking into SPYW.
So what hath Google wrought?
If you ask the company, it’ll say it’s just trying to make search more personal. “Search is still limited to a universe of webpages created publicly, mostly by people you’ve never met,” says Google Fellow Amit Singhal in the blog post introducing SPYW. “Today, we’re changing that by bringing your world, rich with people and information, into search.”
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Singhal goes on to explain that he named his dog after his favorite fruit, the chikoo. Now when he searches Google for “chikoo,” he gets both sites relating to the fruit and photos that he and his family have shared of their pup.
(If you and I search for “chikoo,” we don’t get pictures of Singhal’s pooch. In fact, unless the Singhals have chosen to share the photos with us or make them public, there’s no way for us to see them at all. With SPYW’s debut, for the first time, Google search results may include links to items that aren’t open for all the world to see.)
The Chikoo example makes for an interesting litmus test. I can’t imagine anyone being neutral about the idea of seeing pet photos in Google results; either it sounds “magical,” as Singhal says it is, or it sounds irritating and off-topic. At first blush, I don’t find the concept appealing — I go to Google to learn about the rest of the world, not my world.
Then again, my negative reaction is purely theoretical at this point: I haven’t seen any of my furry friends pop up in my Google results yet. Our household includes a cat named Butter, but when I search for his name, I get results about the dairy product and related topics. That’s because my activity on Google+ is at best a dim, incomplete reflection of my real-world life. I usually chatter about tech-related matters there, and don’t use the service to share photos with family.
It’s not that I’ve never shared pictures of Butter online, though. He shows up regularly in my Instagram images, and my wife’s, too. He’s also been known to make guest appearances on our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. It’s just that none of those social networks get woven into Google results in the way that Google+ does.
This is not entirely Google’s fault. In the case of information that’s not available on the public web, such as Instagram photos, the search engine can’t get at it at all without permission. And according to Google, Twitter chose to end an agreement that had allowed Google to insert relevant tweets into search results. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told Danny Sullivan that the company would be happy to talk with other social networks about incorporating their content into SPYW, but for now, it’s rushing ahead with a Google+-centric implementation.
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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.
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.