Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Real-Time Social Search: Any Real Concern?

News came earlier this week that the both of the relevant search engine players, Google and Bing, have reached an agreement with Twitter to start incorporating user-generated content from the micro-blogging platform (i.e. user's tweets) into search query results. Additionally, Google has announced a new “social search” functionality for their search results, to be rolled out in Google Labs next week. In effect, the new Google social search will provide content from various social media sites at the bottom of each page of search results.

This combination of social media and search functionality delivers a power tool, namely the ability to perform a real-time “social search”. Using this tool, individuals can obtain a much clearer sense of real-world, current (or “trending”) topics [the TechCrunch article labels this the "pulse of the planet"]. Culling information from social media sites and incorporating such information into search can be used to spotlight important events, uncovering what people are actually talking about right now. Additionally, what better way to gather up-to-date, personal information about a particular person than by Googling their name, and then being delivered text, images, and videos authored by or directly involving that person (as a law student interested in litigation, I can only imagine the limitless possibilities for pre-trial discovery!).

Herein lies a (potentially) major privacy concern. It may seem hard to fathom, but there are still people who are surprised when information that they enter into Facebook, or onto Twitter, surfaces in undesirable ways on the Internet. YES! Should you choose to upload that picture of you 'totally dominating the beerpong table', it will most likely be searchable (discoverable by friends, employers, lawyers, your mother...). Real-time, social search simply removes an accessibility barrier that these social platforms had, inherently, previously established and contained. Now, someone does not have to individually search every single social site, and they do not necessarily have to worry about matching a person's user name to their 'resume name.'

Granted, this concern may be premature and may in fact never ultimately develop into a major issue. It is likely (hopefully) that the social media sites and the search engines will work together to pre-bake privacy settings into the actual functionality of social search. An easy way to opt-out of search results from the social media side of the equation would be a good start (or require that you opt-in in order to allow your social media content to be displayed to others within search results).

While privacy controls may be forthcoming, these search engine/Twitter partnerships and the Google social search announcement highlights the burgeoning trend towards opening up user information online. The scope of what you can find out about someone, or about any given organization, through search is constantly expanding. While younger generation might expect and accept these privacy implications, older and more cautious (sensible?) individuals may not be eager to see their continued progression.

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