Search takes a social turn

Search takes a social turn

After a decade when search engines ruled supreme — tapping billions of web pages to answer every conceivable query — many people now prefer getting their online information the old-fashioned way: by yakking across the fence.

Turning to friends is the new rage in the web world, extending far beyond established social networking sites and setting off a rush among web companies looking for ways to help people capitalise on the wisdom of their social circles — and to make some money in the process. “What your friends think and what people like you think is much more relevant than what everybody thinks,” said Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Amazon.com now allows its shoppers to connect to their Facebook accounts so that Amazon can display their friends’ favourite books, films and other products. TunerFish, a start-up owned by Comcast, lets users share what television shows and movies they are watching, mapping out an up-to-the-minute TV guide of programmes gaining in popularity among their friends.

And Loopt, a location-focused social network with 3.4 million registered users, recently began showing them which of their friends liked a particular restaurant.

“We’ve gotten a tremendous response from that,” said Sam Altman, a co-founder. Altman said that one’s network of friends “is an incredible predictor of what you will like.” On Google and other search engines, searches for things like hotels or electronics can turn up a lot of online clutter and spam. Instead, many people informally poll their friends for recommendations, often through social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Relevant results

“Improving search has always been about improving relevance,” Ray of Forrester said. “But the thinking now is that getting information from your immediate social network is what will really make results more relevant.”

While user-contributed review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have long been popular ways to get a quick reading on a new place to eat, the sheer volume of reviews can be overwhelming.

The trust factor of friends’ suggestions can make a big difference. Altman said Loopt’s users are 20 times more likely to click on a place their friends had liked or visited than a place that simply ranked higher in search results.

So-called recommendation engines on sites like Amazon and Netflix try to guess what customers might like by comparing their previous purchases or rentals with those of others with similar tastes. But that approach often does not offer much insight as to why a particular film or restaurant is being recommended, said John Riedl, a professor at the
University of Minnesota.

Social networks, he said, “do a richer job of constructing recommendations.” For example, seeing that a friend is frequenting a new pizzeria can have a lot of influence over whether you go.”

Telly trends

TV watching, often a solitary activity, is an obvious candidate for some social tips. TunerFish shows which programmes are gaining in popularity in your online social circle, and what is being watched right now.

Although TunerFish is available only on the web for now, the company says it could eventually be brought to the TV screen through an application running on a set-top box.

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