Google's New 'Search Plus Your World' Shows Difficulty of Managing Two Missions

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Soon, when you search Google, you'll also be searching all the posts contained in the social network you've built on Google Plus. VentureBeat called it Google's "biggest change in a decade," and it is, indeed, a very big deal. What's not clear, however, is whether it's a good direction for Google's search offering.

The new service, which Google calls 'Search Plus Your World,' shows both the power of integrating a social network with a search engine and the difficulty of executing on the two missions that Google has laid out for itself. What's best for Google Search might not be best for Google Plus and vice versa. And in trying to maximize both technologies' potential, Google might find itself hurting its core search tool.

On the one hand, easily searching for any social content -- including posts shared with you but not available on the public Internet -- is a great addition to search. "We have private results, not publicly avaialble to everyone in your search results," Google fellow Ben Smith told me. "This is a very big step." And it is. How often does it occur to you to look for something that a friend wrote about? The new algorithm helps you find that kind of stuff. As they showed me in a pre-briefing, search 49ers in standard search and you get standard links (team site, Wikipedia, etc), but search 49ers in the new Google, and you get your friends talking about the team.

On the other hand, Google's long-time mission has been to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Note that the mission was not to "organize Google's information." Google was built to sit atop the entire Internet. In the drive to integrate Google Plus, they have had to backburner comprehensiveness. The pre-social Google would have attempted to integrate all social networks into its searches. The social Google wants to maximize the value of the information they have stored in Google Plus, which aids users' searches *and* increases the value of G+.

Now, Google's (partial) response to this is that it's much technically easier to integrate Google Plus postings into Google searches than it would be to do the same for Facebook or Twitter. Google knows exactly what the relationships are and can access them without substantial negotiation with another company. Nonetheless, from the user perspective -- which Google has long been quite good at taking -- the really killer search product would transcend individual social networks. This hypothetical search product (call it G++) wouldn't rely on G+ as the social layer; it would go deeper and help people expose the implicit social networks that exist across all apps and services and searches. That's not what 'Search Plus Your World' is, though.

More subtly, it seems to me that if you wanted to add value to your Google searches you'd build a very different kind of social network from the kinds I have on Facebook and Twitter. Will it be good for Google Plus if people start to build their networks with search, not conversation, in mind?

All that said, there are some excellent new things about the design of the new personal search results. For one, Google added a toggle to the upper right corner of the search page that allows you to switch between global results and your personal set of results. That's a nice way to opt-out on a case-by-case basis and lets us maintain something like a universally legible Internet. They also added a blanket opt-out to the new personal search results, which is commendable as well.

But I just can't help but wonder whether Google's new social mission and the original Google mission will keep coming into conflict. And in the race to protect its flank from Facebook, Google will lose track of why we loved them in the first place.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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