Social Search is a concept that keeps popping up but there does not seem to be a common understanding of what exactly it is. This post will attempt to lay out a definition and then follow up why social search is useful as an online/offline complement to non-social searches like offline library searches or online web searches.
What is Social Search?
Social Search is the interaction with other people in order to retrieve search results. For instance, “Honey, where are the car keys?” is a Social Search. Likewise, a question posted to a social network is a Social Search. However, a catalog search in a library or using an online search engine are not Social Searches.
Probably the most detailed description is Brynn Evans and Ed Chi’s paper “Towards a model of understanding Social Search”. In order to better their understanding of Social Search, the authors performed a study in Social Search techniques on 150 users. The outcome of the study shows there are three Social Search phases; before search, during search and after search where each phase is subsequently divided further in to categories of searches. It is a good read and the paper includes a great Social Search diagram.
How is Social Search used today?
We are using Social Search in our day-to-day life – every time we ask a question of one or more humans, we perform a Social Search and when we search for things like online restaurant recommendations in repositories of social data.
These are all Social Searches and they are grouped into three types
- Direct asking – you post a question directly, online and offline, to another human being (see car key example above).
- Public asking – you pose a question to your Twitter followers.
- Searching – you search online and offline sites containing question/answer type data; online sources like Yahoo Answers or Aardvark (see below for more info) and offline sources like Ms. Manners and Dear Abbey (two great examples!)
Brynn Evans, this time with Sanjay Kairam and Peter Pirolli better defines these terms in their paper “Exploring the Cognitive Consequences of Social Search”. In fact, they interestingly show that using all three social search techniques normally yields higher quality results than each one individually or two out of three techniques.
How will Social Search be used in the future?
The big search engines are always trying to find better ways at providing high-quality data. Currently, for most searches, Social Search does not function better than a Google, Yahoo or an MSN. For an insightful perspective, look at Brynn Evans post “Why Social Search wont topple Google anytime soon”.
Mike Arrington has a great posting in TechCrunch about Aardvark. Aardvark was built by ex-Googlers and is currently in invitation-only beta. The idea is that you launch a question via IM to Aardvark. Through Aardvark’s network of signed-up humans, at least one human will know the answer and get back to you. The response time is not real-time like a Google search but still fairly short (< 2 – 10min). Nevertheless, the idea behind Aardvark is that the quality of the search result is better.
Why is Social Search important?
This is not about comparing Social Search and non-Social Search. Both searches are important and they complement each other. The important thing to remember is not which technology or which algorithm or process one uses, the important thing is that we get the best results in the shortest and cheapest amount of time possible.
Two quick examples – use Social Search when you have questions not easily understood by search engines like “Where in San Francisco is the best place to buy a pair of running shoes?” Use search engines with questions like “Where is nearest coffee shop”.
From an anthropological perspective, the understanding of how we act and interact helps us in our understanding of who we are and also how Social Search can be leveraged and for what causes in political, environment and other social movements.
From a business perspective, in any type of marketing promotions, a good understanding of human actions and interactions is key.
As a sidebar and even though it has nothing to do with Social Search, check out David Weinberger book “Everything is Miscellaneous” on David’s take on search. It is an interesting study about search and how it has been performed throughout history and where search will lead us.
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