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

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.

(MORE: Why Google’s Biggest Problem with ‘Search Plus Your World’ Isn’t Antitrust)

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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