January 12th, 2012 by Lloyd Gofton
Earlier this week Google announced a number of changes, which apply to the U.S. only at this stage, and are designed to accelerate personal search, and move towards social search.
The three changes fall under the following categories:
First: Personal results, aimed at helping you to find more relevant to…well…you.
Second: Profiles in search, meaning you can more easily identify people you’re close to or want to follow.
Third: People and pages, which focuses on helping you to find profiles and Google+ pages related to memes or topics of interest.
The additions offer more meaningful ways to connect with people around you, straight from the search results.
This all sounds well and good, and personalising and or customising results to be more relevant can only be more positive, can’t it?
Many commentators such as the Guardian and BBC have picked up on the other side effect of these changes which is to make Google+ much more relevant. For example, when you search for information, particularly about individuals, results from the social network will be prominently displayed on the first page of results, assuming you are a member.
That makes Google+ a much more attractive social network, as users will see fewer results from outside it when they search for information.
As you might expect, Twitter has offered its opinion on the issue, as it has perhaps the most to lose. Twitter’s lead lawyer, Alex Macgillivray, called it a “bad day for the internet“, and suggested – as a former Google employee – that there would have been dissent internally “at search being warped this way“.
Twitter later made a formal statement: “For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results any time they wanted to find something on the internet.
“As we’ve seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter, as a result, Twitter accounts and tweets are often the most relevant results. We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organisations and Twitter users.”
Others have also criticised the change, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land commented: “Search engines are supposed to send you away to the best information, even if they don’t have their own in stock. Google has previously been excellent at providing links to the most suitable information.
“Today’s change is one of the few times where I’m thinking ‘What the hell are you doing, Google?’”
Getting to the heart of the matter, Google was always going to find a way to move its social network, which is so far behind the game, to the front. Its best strategy to achieve this is to link its social network more closely to its search engine, which is after all the most popular in the U.S and Europe. But is that fair?
Google’s decision to favour Google+ posts which would not rank highly by its normal criteria (defined by the number of “authoritative” pages on the web linking to it) could suggest that it is favouring its own product in order to grow it more quickly. That in turn could breach antitrust (or competition) laws.
Twitter and Facebook content does not generally appear in Google search results because neither site provides Google with unlimited access to their content.
Twitter formerly had an agreement in which Google paid for access to index its database directly, but Twitter chose not to renew the agreement, according to a statement placed on Google+ by an official Google account, which said it was “a bit surprised by Twitter’s comments” because “they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer“.
Although these changes are likely to head to Europe eventually, the Guardian piece suggests Google may have to think twice about introducing the changes over here because it has a greater share of search in European countries, meaning a ruling on it affecting the market is more likely, and also if the changes extend to results on Android phones, then it may face more urgent calls for an antitrust investigation.
This wouldn’t be the first time that there has been a call for Google to be investigated on such grounds, but if these changes do come to Europe as expected, we could be on the verge of a few interesting legal actions.