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Google tries to make search more social

By Mike Swift, San Jose Mercury News –

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Google starting Tuesday will launch a series of upgrades intended to help the dominant search engine better understand people and their relationships, an ambitious and potentially significant attempt to close the loop between two of the Internet’s most elemental services — search and social.

With the Internet evolving from a Web of links to a Web of people thanks to the massive appeal of Facebook and other social networks, Google six months ago launched its own Google+ social network. The Mountain View Internet giant has been working ever since to meld search and its other services into Google+.

“We really believe this builds a much better search experience for people,” Google Fellow Ben Smith said in an interview with this newspaper. “They can find things they couldn’t find before.”

Perhaps the biggest change will be that a Google search in many cases will now include not just results that could have been seen by anyone, but private links based on that user’s network of friends — including personal photos, status updates and other content shared on Google+ or Google’s photo sharing service Picasa.

One search expert, Danny Sullivan, said the ambitious changes could be a powerful weapon for Google+ in its competition with the much larger and more established Facebook.

“I think it’s one of the most important and biggest changes they’ve ever done, the combination of letting you search through private and public information all from one place,” Sullivan, the editor-in-chief of the website Search Engine Land, said in an email message. “It might prove to be a further game-changer in Google’s quest to take on Facebook in the social space.”

A search for a vacation to Greece, for example, could reveal not just hotel or airline websites but personal photos of the Aegean Sea or the cliffs of the Greek island Santorini taken by the searcher’s friends, images that had been shared directly with the searcher or posted publicly on Google+ or Picasa.

That, Google hopes, will produce much more compelling search results, while bolstering Google+. “This is the first time any major search engine has done this,” Smith said.

Still, Sullivan said, the changes, could also trigger worries from privacy advocates, as well as additional antitrust problems, if critics perceive that Google is “using its search dominance to try and squeeze out competitors or squeeze itself in to a new space.”

One limitation for the new service is that it can only reveal results from parts of the public web that can be crawled and indexed by Google — meaning the private posts between friends on Facebook, for example, still won’t show up.

Smith and a Google spokesman, Jake Hubert, declined to mention social networks like Facebook and Twitter by name, but said that the search giant was open to working with “third parties” to open their content to being searched and indexed by Google. The vast and growing amount of personal content on Facebook is a significant threat to Google, because its inaccessibility makes the dominant search engine less relevant.

The new Google search services will gradually roll out around the world in English on over the coming week. They will be switched on by default for anyone logged in with their Google account, although users will get a notice that the new services have been enabled. Users will have the option to hide their personal results with one click, or disable the new features entirely by changing their search settings.

While Facebook currently has about 800 million active users, according to the metrics firm comScore, Google+ has a much smaller base of about 65 million active users. But another new feature being introduced this week, the ability to more easily search for people, including those with very common names such as “Fred Jones,” could help boost Google+ by encouraging a broader network of connections.

That new feature includes an autocomplete feature that shows a person’s photo as a name is being typed within the Google search query box, helping searchers confirm they have the right person before going to a results page linked to that one person.

And once on that results page, users will be have the option to make a new connection with that person on Google+.

“This is the first time you’ve been able to manage your relationships, right in the search results,” Smith said.

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