Search and the social graph

Google has created a multibillion-dollar economy based on keywords.  We use keywords to find things and advertisers use keywords to find customers.  As Michael Arrington points out, this is leading to increasing amounts of low quality, keyword-stuffed content. The end result is a very spammy internet. (It was depressing to see Tim Armstrong cite Demand Media, a giant domain-name owner and robotic content factory, as a model for the new AOL.)

Some people hope the social web — link sharing via Twitter, Facebook etc — will save us.  Fred Wilson argues that “social beats search” because it’s harder to game people’s social graph.  Cody Brown tweeted:

On Twitter you have to ‘game’ people, not algorithms. Look how many followers @demandmedia has. A lot less then you guys: @arrington @jason

These are both sound points. Lost amid this discussion, however, is that the links people tend to share on social networks – news, blog posts, videos – are in categories Google barely makes money on. (The same point also seems lost on Rupert Murdoch and news organizations who accuse Google of profiting off their misery).

Searches related to news, blog posts, funny videos, etc. are mostly a loss leaders for Google. Google’s real business is selling ads for plane tickets, dvd players, and malpractice lawyers. (I realize this might be depressing to some internet idealists, but it’s a reality). Online advertising revenue is directly correlated with finding users who have purchasing intent. Google’s true primary competitive threats are product-related sites, especially Amazon. As it gets harder to find a washing machine on Google, people will skip search and go directly to Amazon and other product-related sites.

This is not to say that the links shared on social networks can’t be extremely valuable.  But most likely they will be valuable as critical inputs to better search-ranking algorithms. Cody’s point that it’s harder to game humans than machines is very true, but remember that Google’s algorithm was always meant to be based on human-created links. As the spammers have become more sophisticated, the good guys have come to need new mechanisms to determine which links are from trustworthy humans. Social networks might be those new mechanisms, but that doesn’t mean they’ll displace search as the primary method for navigating the web.

Twitter killed RSS (and that’s a bad thing)

I’ve used Google Reader religiously since it launched.  I’m a few days away from quitting it forever.  Pretty much every blog I read tweets the titles of their posts along with a link.  Better yet, the people I follow retweet their favorite links, providing a very efficient way for me to discover new articles to read and publishers to follow.

Contrary to all the uninformed handwringing about how Twitter is making people dumb, I find I’m reading more long form blog and newspaper content than ever.   And the stuff I’m reading is more interesting and relevant.  That’s a good thing.

Meanwhile, Google Reader has been desperately adding social features such as sharing starred posts and automatically recommending blogs.  These features are clumsy and won’t save Reader, or RSS, from its inevitable decline.

Although I’m generally happier as a user, I think all of this is bad for the internet.  Twitter isn’t an open protocol.   It’s a private company with a profit motive that has a history of unreliable service. Moreover, URL shorteners – a byproduct of Twitter – are effectively creating a second layer DNS service that is far less secure and reliable.

I know that many people have been calling for an open alternative to Twitter for a long time.  I support them, but I’m afraid it’s too late. The network effects of Twitter’s social graph are just too strong.  Not to mention its brand momentum.  But the biggest reason Twitter has won is that mainstream users don’t care enough about these “principled” objections to switch.  Do you think Ashton or Oprah cares about open protocols?  I doubt it.

But someday they will care – when the internet is less open, less reliable and less secure.