Google Jan. 27 said it is taking its Google Social Search project to make search more relevant and injecting it into its core search engine with new features, a move to challenge Facebook's social network dominance.
Google Social Search drops content from searchers' contacts directly into search results. The service requires users to have a Google profile and be logged into their Google account. Google then builds a bridge between users' Google accounts and their Google profiles, surfacing users' content in what Google calls a "social circle."
This social circle features users of social services Google users have listed in their Google profile, including all Gmail contacts and Gmail chat buddies, as well as people users are publicly connected to on social sites such as Twitter, FriendFeed and Google Picasa.
If there's Web content written or published by contacts relevant to the search query, Google's algorithm will sniff the content out and serve it up at the bottom of the search results page in a section called "Results from people in your social circle." This can include anything from restaurant reviews published on sites like Yelp to blog posts.
To date, users had to opt in to use the experimental service from Google Labs, and while Google won't disclose how many people signed up, Google Product Manager Murali Viswanathan told eWEEK more people signed up for Google Social Search than they do for other Google experiments.
In the next few days, users of the English language version of Google.com who are signed into their Google account will automatically begin seeing Google Social Search with new features, Maureen Heymans, technical lead for Social Search, told eWEEK.
Heymans said one of these features is adding the Social Search capabilities to Google Images, so that users who search the Google site dedicated to pictures will see pictures that friends have published to the Web via services such as Yahoo's Flickr or Google's own Picasa Web Albums.
Social Search also features two new links for "My social circle" and "My social content." These links will whisk users to a new interface where they may see the connections and content behind social results.
The "My social circle" displays whether people are connected via Twitter, FriendFeed, YouTube or some other Web service, something Heymans said was a big request from the experimental launch. The "My social content" lists public pages that might appear in other people's social results.
These tools are not unlike Google's Dashboard's effort to show users how much data they are generating through Google Apps.
"Social Search is really a feature to improve the relevancy of the search results," Heymans said. "You know your friends and you trust them, so that brings a lot of useful information in Google's search rankings."
It also puts Facebook more squarely in Google's crosshairs. Google and Facebook share many of the same users, so it's not inconceivable some Facebook users may go to Google to find content from their friends instead of Facebook.
However, no one can get Google to admit to the competition. "This is not a social network, this is a feature of search, just like we launched music search, real-time and other functionality within search," Viswanathan said.
Heymans also noted that consumers can generate content in Facebook and share it. Google Social Search merely surfaces content users have already published. Interestingly, some data can be shared from Facebook for those who have associated their Facebook profiles with Google Profiles, but don't expect to see reams of Facebook data on Google Social Search.
Some folks see a collision at the intersection of search and social networks on the horizon, as ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick noted:
""Do you want to have your questions answered only via your friends and their online content? No, probably not. But do you want to have your questions answered without the input of your friends and their trusted content? You probably don't want that either. Google Social Search is a nice combination of search and social. Facebook's search is terribly weak in comparison. That's where the real competition is, not between Google and Bing or Yahoo.""
In the meantime, see how Google Social Search works here in this demo video