Google and three strands of search: organic, local, and personal

This is a highly speculative post, written in haste, and therefore it is something that I will likely to regret later. This piece is framed in the context of Google’s need to avoid the appearance that it abuses its dominant market position in organic search to gain an unfair advantage in other related markets, primarily social networking. At this moment, I should clarify that I am neither an expert in matters related to Google search rankings, nor an expert in anti-trust or competition law, nor an expert in economics, despite how this piece is framed. It is a lay person’s take on how things may turn out. Or most likely, how they may not turn out.

I feel that, at times, people are asking the wrong question: does x or y affect the organic rankings of my site, especially those things related to Google+ and associated information such as authorship and publisher mark-up? That may well be something of a red herring, since I believe (read: speculate without any evidence) that Google will develop distinct facets of search – in this instance: organic (or perhaps general), local, and personal – with a distinct set of algorithms of their own, drawing on different sources of information, even if they are shown on the same screen, together with advertisements, instead of one integrated organic search. Furthermore, it is speculated that, as local and personal searches will rely heavily on information collected on or via the Google+ platform, business and website owners will have to create a presence on that platform, not to rank well in organic search per se, but for local and personal searches.

There is a strong argument that Google search will constitute of various distinct algorithms of search in the future, where they would be separated from one another by a firewall, in a similar fashion to how organic search and advertisements are separated, due to the regulatory framework. Unless Google makes a clean separation, others may accuse Google of abusing its dominant market position in the organic search market to gain unfair advantage in other related markets, possibly for local search and more probably for personalized search based on social networking. If information held and walled in by Google, only accessible to Google and its users, such as the case with some information on Google+, were to influence the organic search results, through the creation and use of Google+ local listings, or authorship and publisher mark-ups tied into the Google+ landscape, then it may be argued that Google is forcing anyone with an online presence and has an interest in ranking well in organic search to create and use Google+ profiles and Google+ pages, thereby increasing the number of users of Google+, which constitutes a different market from organic search. In other words, people are not using Google+ because it is a superior product compared to its competitors in the same market, but because they need to use it in order to rank well in organic search. Conversely, Google would be able to include any public data on Google+, accessible to its competitors on an equal footing, without placing undue weight in the organic search results, as it might do if it had access to Facebook or Twitter data. For this reason, Google will have to create a new form of search, or at least distinct from organic search, in which one is highly localized, and another highly personalized, resembling a recommendation engine than a search engine, if it were to make use of information that users have shared within Google+ but not publicly.

Note that these three parts, alongside advertisements, images, books, news and other specialized results, can be shown on the same screen or on different tabs, in response to the same query. This is already happening to some degree, but the contention is that it will become more pronounced and more clearly delineated in the future. Let’s say I were to type in restaurants and hit search, then Google may display: (1) organic search, possibly localized, but not personalized (the question I intended to ask might have been what restaurants are there nearby? but Google may interpret it as what are restaurants? or why do people eat at restaurants?); (2) localized, but not personalized, search results based on or heavily influenced by Google+ local with scores and reviews (which restaurants are good nearby?); and (3) localized and personalized search results, for example showing the reviews by people who count as my social connections, as well as those Google+ profile and pages that I follow which may include restaurant critics and restaurant guides (which restaurants nearby do my friends and experts recommend?). There are crossovers between local and personal, especially in things such as reviews, as they draw on the pool of information on the Google+ platform, so this is not a particularly a good example, but I hope how the different types of search would respond is clear, and how that in turn is determined by the information base they draw on and the different sets of algorithms in play.

In other words, the lesson to be learnt by those with online presence may be that they have to develop different, yet complementary, strategies for different strands of search: organic, local, and personal. They are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are most likely to be mutually enforcing, and doing something worthwhile for one will probably have a good influence on the others, and the converse. However, it would help to treat these different strands of search as distinct from one another, not because Google does not want to create a single powerful personalized search, but because of the regulatory and market framework Google needs to operate in. In any case, for both local and personal searches, Google+ comes into play, as Google+ enables Google to collect and integrate information within its walls: Google+ local provides a repository of information on businesses and services that have physical presence in the real world, and Google+ profiles and pages are important to establish the personal and social nexuses on which recommendations will depend.

Whichever forms the future search engines take, they may well be unrecognizable in a few years’ time from what we have been used to, and what we see now. At the moment, Google looks like in a very strong position to dictate the rules of the game. Is there another player, who can alter this situation? Will there be a backlash, whether from the users or from the politicians and regulators? Perhaps a future historian looking at our present may ponder, what would have happened, had Facebook and Twitter been open, and allowed Google free access to their data, instead of trying to protect them as their assets.