In 2005, Google announced the advent of personalized search, which allowed users to put their web history to use in customized search results. In 2009, Google expanded personalized search to all its users, announcing search that would be personalized based on past search information rather than overall web history. Early in 2012, Google announced "Search Plus Your World," which integrated returns from users' social networks into its broader search results.
All these updates were made in the name of the goal that has thus far given Google its Googly kind of magic: relevance. "Google Search has always been about finding the best results for you," Google said in one update. The tool will now "instantly get information that's relevant to your query," it said in another. "The perfect search engine," Larry Page likes to put it, "would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want."
Today, Google is taking another step toward the "what you want" endgame -- and another one in the name of "building the search engine of the future." The company is beginning an experiment that will incorporate information contained in users' Gmail accounts into those users' search returns. "So if you're planning a biking trip to Tahoe," Google search VP Amit Singhal explains, "you might see relevant emails from friends about the best bike trails, or great places to eat on the right hand side of the results page. If it looks relevant you can then expand the box to read the emails."
This "information bridge," as the AP calls it, is currently optional for certain Gmail users. And it is, at this point, just an experiment -- one among many that Google will try in the name of making its search product more social.
But it's also quite a big step in that goal. Should you choose to avail yourself of the tool, you will find some of your most intimate and private communications served up next to the most wide-ranging of the world's information. "Amazon" could turn up the Wikipedia page for the forest, or the river, or the mythic women ... and then present it to you along with your order confirmation for the commemorative box set of Fifty Shades of Grey. Gmail integration is Search Plus Your World v.2, with "Your World" defined in the most mundane way possible. And the most intimate.
And that could well prove useful. There could be times when you want to cross-reference the Internet against your inbox. There could be times when you do indeed want your search for "flight" to surface information about your upcoming trip to San Francisco, or your search for "tacos" to yield a mix of "history of" and "plans to consume."
But I can see many other times when you wouldn't actually want that convenience -- when you'd want to maintain a little distance between public knowledge and private, between the you and the everything else. Relevance is, like so much else, contextual. And Google, in its quest for more "intelligent" search, seems to be defining intelligence as a function of convenience: one keyword, tons of different results. So simple! So easy! All those layers of info, right there in the same place! For a company whose expressed mission is nothing if not macro -- "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" -- this is decidedly micro. And for a knowledge-recall tool that is self-consciously modeled on collective wisdom, it's remarkably personal.
Again, that's fine. It could prove quite helpful! But it also highlights the challenge Google faces, one that extends beyond its core social-vs-search problem: the tension of relevance itself. Determining what will be relevant to its users has been, of course, the whole point. But: Where does it end? As Google extends its reach beyond search -- to the many products that collect data on their users even as they make their lives better -- how will it integrate those data into its core products? How will it put its intimate knowledge of us to use? As the company expands its purview, it'll be faced, again and again, with an uncomfortable task: not of organizing information, but of deciding what counts as information in the first place.