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The Amazing Possibilities of Social Search

2009 September 16

At the intersection of Social Networking and Search is an exciting frontier that is just beginning to be realized.  Through more efficient analysis and subsequent comprehension of the relationships between information we will gain a greater understanding of the world around us and interact with it.  The implications for both publishers and marketers will be powerful.

The concept of Social Search intuitively makes intuitive sense.  We know a lot of people and know that some of them have specific knowledge and wisdom that is useful to us.  However, locating the person in our networks with the specific intelligence to aid us in a specific task can be difficult.

In the digital world, the problem has been extended to more types of information including documents, graphics, audio and video.  The more skillfully we are able to navigate through complex webs of data and concepts the greater value we can derive from the networks that we create.

Our Vast Networks

On LinkedIn we can all see our own network statistics.  I have a few hundred contacts.  However, my 2nd degree contacts (friends of my friends) number over 100,000.  Amazingly, my 3rd degree contacts (the friends of my friend’s friends) number in the millions- as large as some countries – all of whom are just two introductions away from me.

Theoretically, my network on LinkedIn contains almost anything I would like to know, from where to get a good latte in Budapest to what are the latest developments in cancer research.  The concept predates the internet, as people who want to search for information often intend to “ask around,” but online it has been expanded to an astounding degree.  Everything we want to know is at our fingertips – if we can find it.

Yet, with so much information so close, how do we navigate and find what we need in our networks when we need it??  How can we benefit from information contained in our own private information treasure trove? As Duncan Watts wrote, “Searchability is, therefore, a generic property of social networks.”

Broadcast Network Searches

I have a friend I knew in high school with whom I connected on Facebook.  She updates her status frequently so I have a pretty good idea what her life is like now, even though I haven’t actually seen her for 20 years and she lives thousands of miles away. (She always seems to be going to the pool or to the night club – lucky her!).  It’s not extremely useful information, but I like seeing her updates, knowing that she is okay and enjoying her life.

Recently, my friend lost her cat and she used Facebook to try and find it.  She described her cat and asked if anyone in her area had seen it on her network status.  I felt a little strange about being contacted about this.  I felt for my friend, but obviously couldn’t help her.  I messaged her a few days later to ask if she found the cat and whether everything was okay but, uncharacteristically, she didn’t answer.

I don’t think she was being rude, or doubted my concern.  She was probably overwhelmed.  She wanted to find her cat and hundreds of people who could do nothing to help her were probably also contacting her to see if she ever found her lost cat.  Broadcasting her search was enormously inefficient.

Directed Network Searches

Usually, we want to direct our search so that we can get there in as few steps as possible.  We have a desire for some information, and we immediately scan our local network.  (Our local network has nothing to do with geography, but rather network proximity – our 1st degree connections in social distance terms.)

For instance, if I wanted to know, as mentioned above, where to get a good latte in Budapest, I could think of a friend who lives in Budapest.  Because he is my friend, I also know that he likes lattes and probably knows exactly the place.  I would ask him, and he would tell me.  1st degree social searches are pretty simple.

The more interesting case is if someone who knew me, but didn’t know anybody in Budapest, was traveling and happened to be in Budapest and felt a sudden urge for a good latte.  Their local search would divert them to me in Kiev to find a latte back in Budapest where they could actually drink it.  It’s a little like going a few miles out of the way to get to a highway on-ramp that will take you to your destination.

What makes this latter search interesting is that I would then establish myself as a hub of information about Budapest (and probably for the rest of Eastern Europe as well).  Future searches would probably also come my way.

Affiliation Networks

What we do in our social searches is identify what the network theorist Duncan Watts calls “Affiliation Networks.”  We know what we are looking for and we know that it is associated with some other things.  So, quite reasonably our search starts with something or someone that shares a common attribute with our target.

For instance, let’s say we wanted to find a stockbroker in Boston (as in Milgram’s famous experiment).  We would think of stockbrokers we know and people in Boston that we know.  Chances are, between the two groups, we would find someone who would be able to help us locate the stockbroker in question.

Amazingly, Watts found that with only two or three affiliations, a network search became much more efficient.

HITS Algorithm

The pioneer of this type of search electronically is Jon Kleinberg at Cornell.  He has been at the forefront of both Network Theory and Search technology since the late ‘90’s.  He had a very similar idea to Sergei Brin and Larry Page at Google, but with a small difference.

Google’s PageRank algorithm is currently the market standard (and was developed concurrently with HITS).  A site is considered important if it has a lot of other sites linking to it (or if a site that links to it has a lot of sites linking to it). The more total paths that would lead someone to the site, the more valuable the site is considered.  It’s a good idea and it’s based on the scientific meritocracy driven by cites (mentions in other papers).

HITS, however, has a crucial difference.  While PageRank only takes into account the target of the search, Kleinberg felt that there were two elements that were important:  Authorities (the target of our search query) and Hubs, which lead to the authorities.  In our Budapest latte analogy, the coffee shop would be the Authority, while I, in my role assisting the search, would be a hub.  If, for instance, the first coffee shop was closed I could be referenced for another possibility.

Two good examples of this type of search methodology are Amazon and Ask.com.  Amazon regularly gives us affiliations (i.e. people who bought this book also bought…). Ask.com, using a version of Kleinberg’s HITS algorithm, regularly gives a list of “related searches” with our query results.

The Wonder Wheel of Social Search

So it would seem that Google has won the “Search Wars” with an inferior algorithm.  Yet, Google shows us why they will probably continue to win with their new “Wonder Wheel” feature that utilizes the logic of the HITS algorithm.

Let’s say I wanted to know more about Social Search.  I could do a Google search for Jon Kleinberg and get conventional Google results.  After that it gets exciting!

I could then go to the top of the page, and click on “Show Options,” find Wonder Wheel on the left side menu, click it and a whole new world opens up.  I can see that Jon is connected to Eva Tardos, who seems like a very nice woman and is doing some interesting research on algorithms herself. (Also, being Hungarian, she could probably help find the aforementioned delicious latte in Budapest).

I can also follow links to IBM research and someone named Amit Kumar, who also does exciting work on algorithms and apparently shares his name with a top Bollywood star.  These links, of course, link to other interesting and exciting things.  It’s an amazing (and fun!) way to research a topic.

In the future, we can expect the underlying logic of social search to continue to play a role in determining how people and information relate to each other.  Using similar algorithms, we will be able to find commonalities among seemingly disparate groups of consumers and content, improving our ability to establish relevance between those that we market to and the information they seek.  Consumer targeting, content management and overall web usability will benefit greatly as we learn to utilize Kleinberg’s concepts of Hubs and Authorities.

- Greg

14 Responses leave one →
  1. September 17, 2009

    Greg,

    Fascinating article. Great explanation on how searches operate. The world economy faces major realignment as social search methodologies continue to improve. All industries will be affected, whether their products/services are sold B2C or B2B.

    Our work has been centered on the interpersonal aspects of social search. Word-of-mouth – pure, distilled social search – has long been the most effective form of advertising. By understanding how it operates we can facilitate it and track it using social media.

    While WOM seems simple, it is surprisingly complex. There are two types of WOM referrals – “push” and “pull”. A pull is a search for a recommendation for a product or service. A push is an active recommendation that can occur on its own in the context of a conversation or in response to a “pull” request.

    There are 10 essential, dependent steps that must occur in sequence for a WOM referral to occur. http://yougottacall.blogspot.com/2009/01/simplicity.html

    The fact that millions of such conversations occur daily highlights our extraordinary social nature – and the reason that businesses must harness this persistent behavior for promotional purposes to survive.

    – - Tim

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Tim,

    Thanks! Now go tell people about my blog!

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  2. September 24, 2009

    Hi Greg,

    So jumping from somewhere to somewhere else (ha ha) brought me to your blog. I did read that you had only been up for a month, wow you are doing amazingly well in such a short time.

    I rarely have the patience or time to read in depth on blogs so thanks for making me behind in my work today!

    Regarding affiliation networks, I think we have a similar kind of concept on our site.

    marketplacestories.com

    Anyone can shop and read on our site but if a person becomes a member they can review products and post consumer based stories thus sharing their knowledge with others.

    They can also bookmark their favorite products, stores, stories and other members. These friends can see each others favorites lists and ideally it helps them find cool stuff they may be mutually interested in.

    So if Joe is an organic coffee lover and becomes friends with Jane who is as well, she can see that Joe likes Cafe Britt coffee and so she can save Cafe Britt to her favorites list and grab the link next time she is shopping at our site and needs coffee.

    Karen

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Karen,

    Thanks. Very nice site!

    One thing you might want to consider regarding affiliation networks is that people who like the same kind of coffee also might like the same kind of wine, travel destinations, etc. By letting users match a few preferences with others in the database, they can get suggestions of unrelated products.

    (Of course, maybe you’re already doing this, but I didn’t see it).

    I’m not a programmer, but as I understand it’s a pretty simple query. The only problem is that the numbers need to be big enough to work.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  3. September 24, 2009

    Thanks Greg! We have worked very hard on the site (launched May 2008) and greatly appreciate your compliment.

    Because there are so many different threads to our site (programmer talk ha ha) we always have to consider priorities. Right now the priorities are content (products, blog entries, stories) code improvements, marketing and seo etc etc etc.

    When the number of members becomes significant enough we will turn our gaze back on that area and will likely come up with some fun cool concepts to make it more and more meaningful for our members.

    Thanks so much for your ideas and feedback.

    Karen

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Karen,

    Yeah, I wouldn’t say that it’s a high priority, but thought I’d mention it.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  4. September 26, 2009

    thanks ,Greg !
    very intersting information

    [Reply]

  5. October 1, 2009

    Greg – a very interesting article. I learned something. Thanks for putting it up.

    Tom

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Tom,

    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  6. October 4, 2009

    Great articles! Very interesting, I read all of them. Thank you!

    [Reply]

  7. October 16, 2009

    Hi Greg,

    This is Luca from Truffls.com. Good article indeed. I believe social search will continue to develop and I’m very curious about how it will look five years from now.

    I think the focus on people’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree social network isn’t as effective as focusing on finding who is authoritive for the information seeker. A top chef in Italy could probably direct me to a better tiramisu recipe than my good friend John who likes cooking. This goes for all subjects of course.

    I therefore believe that personal profiles should be searchable, so information seekers can find the right person and see what (s)he recommends on subjects (s)he knows a lot about. This is what Truffls.com – my site – does. It isn’t immune to people trying to market their own or their clients’ sites, but as the recommendations are linked to a profile it’s easy for the user to locate and keep tapping into the relevant people out there. Hopefully Truffls will be able to steer social search in this direction.

    Thanks for reading.

    Luca Merlini
    Truffls.com – See What the Experts Recommend.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Luca,

    Thanks. Good luck with Truffls.com

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  8. October 23, 2009

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

    [Reply]

  9. October 26, 2009

    Dear Greg,

    Due to the relevancy of Search engine the surfing may lead fruitful or of no use .Every information is vague.However the need in hour or a minute is prime focus.

    It was a proper cut to search.Thx for your time .

    Still i wish you could segreggate the reach out.

    [Reply]

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