So what is social search, exactly?
Not quite googling with friends.
Think about the last decision you made where you sought out the opinion of others. The process probably started with a determination of who and how many people to consult. After gathering all of the feedback you had to figure out which perspectives were the most influential. And at the end of it all there were still probably people you would have liked to speak with but didn’t get a chance to.
Social search is about reducing the friction in each step of this process by tapping into the data scattered throughout social networks across the web and using it to help people make more informed decisions.
A few insights from the offline world
The value you place on input from your social circle depends on:
- How much uncertainty surrounds the decision and the amount of readily available information
- The magnitude of the decision and its consequences
- How much taste matters
At one end of the spectrum are decisions related to your career, relationships, etc. that rate highly across all three dimensions. At the other end is the choice about which restaurant to go to for brunch or what movie to watch on a Friday night. Trip and event planning related decisions, as well as larger discretionary purchases, fall somewhere in between.
The relevance of any one person’s opinion depends on:
- That person’s topical expertise on the matter at hand (the more complex and consequential a decision, the more this counts)
- How well that person knows you
- How similar or dissimilar that person is to you
Another factor is the decision framework—are you choosing from among a limited consideration set or are you open to a wide array of options? In the case of the former, close ties are often able to offer the most discerning opinions because of their insights into your tastes and preferences. If the name of the game is discovery, however, weak ties are usually best at introducing you to categorically new alternatives.
Social search today
We’re still tackling the low-hanging fruit, e.g. surfacing a friend’s Yelp review or Foursquare tip in response to a search for a certain restaurant. These types of social signals tend to be the most straightforward to match with a particular query.
But what are the chances your friend has critical new information that might sway your choice of venue on top of the crowd-sourced wisdom of 328 other Yelpers who’ve dissected the dining experience at L’Artusi? Probably not high. The same can be said for products reviewed on Amazon.
In the future?
Where social search stands to make the most strides is in helping people negotiate more complex and important decisions. An interesting commonality shared by this category of decisions is that they often benefit the most from the perspective offered by weak ties. As Mark Granovetter first pointed out in 1973, it’s our acquaintances, not our closest friends, who are likely to introduce us to the opportunities and people who will dramatically change our lives.
So the social search of tomorrow should be better at surfacing weak ties. What does this look like in practice? Maybe it’s highlighting the Quora profile of a friend of a friend who’s answered a question about a company you’ve previously browsed on Glassdoor. Or maybe, in response to your search for “things to do in Germany”, it’s pulling up the Airbnb listing of a fellow Penn alum who has an apartment for rent in Berlin.
One other wrinkle to note is that the more complicated and critical a decision, the more likely it’ll be carried out in private and not public forums. This has implications for the integration of results across social networks, i.e. not every interaction should be posted to your Facebook wall.