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Google Social Search aims to make social networks more useful

The experimental Google Social Search service, which went live today, adds opinions from friends and others to search engine results on products and services like a new restaurant or smartphone.

The new service, created in Google Labs, adds a long-missing piece to the search puzzle, Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products, told Computerworld last week following its unveiling at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco.

“We came up with a way to have social networks influence your search results,” Mayer said. “If you're signed into Social Search, you get content from your friends.

“There's a huge amount of data on social networks,” she added. “Think about social networking, and it's really about people as sensors. Is the power out over there? How is the snow there? Are the speakers good at this conference? If I can search this massive amount of data, a user can find out what it's like over there right now. That's very exciting.”

Google announced Social Search last week at the same time it disclosed that it had inked a real-time search deal with Twitter. Mayer noted that the two announcements are related in that users will eventually see Twitter posts, or tweets, in Google search results.

For today, however, the search focus is on the addition of Google Social Search to Google Labs.

Google Social Search is designed to let searches return traditional results along with updates and tweets that users' friends and other people they follow on various social networks have posted. For instance, a user could use a regular search engine to find information and reviews on a car he wants to buy and then use Social Search to find pertinent posts from his friends and colleagues.

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., said the experimental new service has the potential to make social networking more useful.

“With it, you can mine your own circle of contacts for information, whether it's for recommendations on a handyman or a pointer to a company that's hiring,” said Olds. “It will also encourage people to expand their networks, since more friends and a wider range of friends mean more useful information.”

Olds noted that Google Social Search is a good example of networks becoming more valuable as they get larger.

“Let's say that I'm looking for a new LCD TV,” he added. “I'm researching models on the Web and happen to see some results pop up in my Social Search. Out of all of my contacts, it's pretty likely that a friend or acquaintance has bought a TV in the last year or so, and they're chock-full of useful advice. The bigger my network is, the more potentially useful information it contains.”

How will Google know who your friends are?

Mayer explained that users will be able to fill out a Google Profile, which would be used to link to friends on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and other social networks. If they use Gmail, Google will have access to their contacts.

“You opt into using Social Search, and then we look at who your friends are and what content they might be publishing,” she said, adding that Google is aware of people's privacy concerns. “We tell you which data source we used in order to find that friend. We're doing our best to be transparent about how we found the relationships. And people have the choice of whether they want the feature or not.”

Google did not disclose how many people have so far signed up to try out Social Search.

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