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Is Google a search engine or a social network?

Molly Wood Jan 16, 2012

Google+ has only existed since last summer and still trails Facebook by a great distance in terms of overall membership. But the service just got a whole lot more publicity thanks to some very prominent placement in Google’s search results. In a revamp of search — Google’s most popular feature — the company will show you results of conversations your friends have had about a given topic. Search on “pizza” and you’ll see the recommendations of your friends featured very visibly alongside restaurant links and, more than likely, the Wikipedia page for pizza in case you didn’t know what it was or want to learn obscure facts about its history.

Google will also search across other Google sites like YouTube or the Picasa photo service and bring you that information prominently. “Say you have family member, and they shared a photo privately with you,” says Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, “now you can do a search and these private things will show up in your search results. Only your search results, or only the people who have this stuff shared with them, but it means that you don’t have to go to two different places if you will to both search the web and search through your own personal material.

So Google search is a dossier of all you do on Google.

The idea is to give you results more applicable to your daily life. But not everyone is happy about the changes. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google on the issue of anti-competitive practices. “Well, it’s anti-competitive because they are favoring their own content,” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director at EPIC, “They’re favoring the posts from Google+ over the type of information that users of Google search might otherwise see, and I think for many people this is actually going to come as a big surprise. We go to Google search often, and we see a good listing of entries based on our interest and based on popularity.” 

But the new Google is not just for people who actually have Google+ accounts. “Even if you’re not signed into Google,” says Sullivan, “and you’re completely anonymous to them, when you do a search, now on right hand side of the page, it will suggest people that you may want to follow in their Google+ system. A good example is if you do a search for music, over on the right hand side, you get this thing that suggests that you follow maybe Britney Spears, or Snoop Dogg. It’s almost like they’ve created this who to follow search engine, but it’s only who to follow on Google Plus.” 

You’ll see the Spears’s Google+ profile above her Facebook fan page or her Twitter feed. This despite the fact that her Facebook page has far more fans and her Twitter feed far more followers than her Google+ presence does. If you were Facebook or Twitter, you wouldn’t be crazy about losing out in placement like that. It’s like losing your spot on the team to the coach’s kid.

This makes new Google different from old Google. Remember old Google? Clean white background, one search box, fast results.

So where does that leave Google now? What is it positioning itself to be: a portal to somewhere else or a destination in and of itself? Sullivan, who has followed Google closely for many years, isn’t sure. “You have this weird balancing act, I think, that’s going on where Google the search engine is kind of being co-opted into what the Google social network wants it to do

Also in this program, a $10 million prize is being offered for anyone who can invent a real live tricorder, like the one used by Bones McCoy on “Star Trek.” Except, you know, real.

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