I’m Not Here To Make Friends
Google’s disastrous decision to muck up its search results with stuff from your social network.
Yet even the examples that Google employees have been showing off don’t seem very useful to me. On his blog, Matt Cutts, who heads Google’s Webspam team, points out how his query for general tso’s chicken is improved by social links. He follows Jennifer 8. Lee, the author of a book about Chinese restaurants, on Google+. When he searches for general tso’s, he gets a link to Lee’s definitive Quora post on the history of the dish. If you don’t follow Lee and you do the same search, you won’t get that post.
But I don’t see the logic here. Isn’t the Quora post a good result for general tso’s chicken whether or not you’re friends with Lee? And the reason it’s a good result is that she’s an expert on the topic, not that she’s your friend or colleague. If Lee’s post isn’t coming up for all Google searchers—rather than just the ones who are perceptive enough to follow her—it would seem to suggest something is amiss with Google’s algorithm. You shouldn’t have to friend a plumber in order to find a good link about unclogging your toilet.
Amit Singhal, who heads Google’s search quality team, points to another example of social search coming in handy. When he searches for chikoo—a kind of fruit that Singhal loves—the search engine also shows him pictures of his dog, which he named Chikoo. The pictures are from his and his wife’s social pages—either Google+ or Picasa Web Albums. I tried something similar by searching for Khalil, my son’s name. Sure enough, his picture (which I’ve shared with some relatives on Picasa) came up in my results. If you were to search for his name, you wouldn’t see his photo (unless I’d shared it with you).
That was sort of nice, I guess. But it seems like an edge case: I’d never searched for my son’s name before, and if I were looking for pictures of him, Google wouldn’t be the first place I’d check. Google wants to change that, of course—it wants to be the first place I go for every query, whether I’m looking for pictures of my son Khalil or the Khalil who sings “Hey Lil Mama.”
But that strikes me as too much of a departure from what I’ve always used Google for. I think of search engines as a gateway to the rest of the world, not as a repository for stuff about me. Going to Google for pictures of my son seems as strange as going to a bookstore to look for my diary. It’s possible that Google will succeed in convincing us to think differently about search engines, but I doubt it. Google results have long been about more than just me, and I loved it that way. Let’s keep my friends and family out of it.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.