More on Social Search

Do you ever feel lucky?So, yesterday I started making the case for social search as an excellent way to find information locked away within an enterprise, and the ability to get good information from social search pays for investments in social networks.

I didn’t cover much detail though. So, that’s the focus of today’s post.

Social search in my mind doesn’t replace traditional indexed search. Most companies have a search engine (or several) already, and any social network will come with its own engine to index its own data. The starting point for social search is aggregating results.

So, when you search for keywords, you get results from within the network, e.g. user profiles, groups, ideas, questions on Connect and Mix. Your keyword search should also be run against other search engines, e.g. Facebook allows you to run your search against Facebook or against the whole ‘tubes using Microsoft Live.

You can’t see these results together though. Social search in my head provides more integrated results, maybe not all jumbled together, but definitely surfaced as a single result set, with cues on the source for each result. Why you ask? Because people won’t spend much effort checking the other sources, e.g. how many of you have ever used Facebook’s Microsoft Live search? I’d be curious to see how much it’s actually used.

You need to have filters, natch, to allow people to refine their results, but I’m a proponent of a single results stream.

Now, that you’ve got a dump of results, you’ll need to add social metadata to each result. People should be able to comment and rate/like each result, maybe bookmark and tag it too. Yup, every single one. This sounds like huge overhead, but keep in mind that very few people will get past that first page of results. Building up useful social metadata will take time; look at Amazon as an example.

People should also be able to see other people’s metadata, their comments, who rated/liked the result, who bookmarked it or tagged it. This needs to be obvious for a couple reasons. First, they need to know they can do stuff to the results, and second, you want to surface and emphasize the social aspect.

The ability to take action on search results is a bit of mind-bender for some people, since the results themselves aren’t seen as objects. Also, the results should highlight social metadata from people in the user’s network, since in theory, that relationship has strength.

The goal is to get people to notice the results are social and contribute.

Beyond the UI, social search needs to tweak the algorithm to be really good. There are varying degrees of relevancy weighting you could try, but at a minimum, any results that have been socially marked up by members of a person’s network should be higher in relevancy.

This helps alleviate one problem that enterprise search has. Enterprise search decisions are frequently made at the department level (vs. corporate) to fill a team or group need. Plus, information in many enterprises is highly siloed and distributed throughout the company, and even if groups agree to open up their data, the big iron problem remains.

So, most enterprise search software can federate with other instances from other vendors, allowing for a more homogeneous results page. However, relevancy calculations differ wildly between search engines, making it very hard to normalize results with any accuracy.

Social search eases relevancy problems by placing top priority on what people say about results. You search for “benefits”. Someone in your network liked one of the results. That result is relevant.

This isn’t foolproof, since a comment doesn’t always mean a result is relevant. It could mean the opposite. You still need to have control over the weighting of social metadata.

Social search applied to information retrieval is a great example of the power of weak ties. Weak ties help you discover information from people you don’t know really well. In a work environment, lots of your connections will be weak ties.

Tools like Twitter/OraTweet and network status help you discover this information.

Frank’s comment on yesterday’s post gives an example. Paul has a similar story. He needed to find the corporate NDA, so he used his Connect status to ask if anyone knew where it was. Someone replied within 15 minutes.

Maybe, he could have found it faster by searching, but that would have required more effort. He’d need to get the right keyword combination and check the document to make sure it’s current. Instead, he asked an expert, saving overall effort and leveraging the combined knowledge of his network.

Classic case of improved efficiency. Now, that’s ROI anyone can support.

Social search is great at work. I’m not sure it’s great on the ‘tubes though. Google SearchWiki is an interesting example; first off, I don’t think it’s obvious enough, and the changes to results only affect you, making me wonder why I wouldn’t bookmark them.

Comments are public, however, and not very useful or polite. Surprise.

The enterprise has a chance to do social search much better for a number of reasons. Bex mentions one, no spam or viruses or phishing or misreprentation. Another is trust, which provides useful metadata. Because of the transparency, you’re likely to get very good comments. This becomes another way for colleagues to highlight their knowledge.

Trust also allows for better aggregation. Andrej pointed out that REST is a great way to query a distributed data model. This becomes an easy and standardized way to query structured data, which is the holy grail of enterprise search.

Anyway, the comments on the first post were interesting. Keep them coming.




  1. On a smaller scale: the smallest, but most trusted, social network is my own social data. I think it would be very useful if google would use my delicious bookmarks, or friendfeed data, when it returns search results. Anything i bookmarked with delicious should score high in google results if it is relevant to my search terms.

  2. Jake – this is something that I think works well inside an enterprise as well. For a couple reasons:

    1. You hit on the creepiness factor. It's more natural inside an organization.
    2. The need to have access to actions that provide the implicit social graph.

    On #2, let me elaborate. Not everyone is going to take the time to update their explicit connections. A better solution is to capture connections between people based on what they do normally. If I'm regularly clicking/rating/commenting on your content, there's a good chance you're at least part of my “informaiton graph” if not my social graph as well.

    Next time I run a search, it would make sense to see your content at the head of the line if you have something related.

    I also think of another aspect. Even if your content is of lower quality (i.e. few ratings, clicks or comments), there's a good argument that it should be included higher in my search results assuming you are stronger in my social graph. Why? Because I'm comfortable reaching out to you for more information to make up for shortfalls in the information your content provides. We can discuss what I'm looking for. I won't do that with a colleague whom I don't know from elsewhere in the organization.

    I articulate this more fully in this blog post, Social-Filtered Search:

    BTW – I was formerly the product marketing manager for BEA Systems Pathways social search. Which is now Oracle, of course!

  3. Yeah, they could do a lot with discovery to help you find new information. This would be a way to push their own bookmarking service.

    Maybe Yahoo will finally do something with Delicious 🙂 Don't hold your breath though.

  4. There definitely will need to be a way to draw people into participating beyond just asking them and talking about how useful it is. What you suggest might work, and there are some other tools that we can use to nudge people into interacting.

    I'm hoping to test this out a bit on Connect first.

  5. Yeah, I saw that in my reader earlier today. At some point soon (12-18 months), the networks are going to have to pour buckets of money into better security and authentication and controls to keep out the baddies.

    Exactly why some people only consume within the firewall, not that it's 100% safe and secure, but at least you're protected by HR and Legal.

  6. Hi Jake – thanks for the great ideas and discussion points on social search at work! At Qitera we have also made the experience that social search works best in the enterprise. As long as relevance is mostly determined by context – social search in organisations makes sense. Currently we are facing the challenge that most social content is produced in non-enterprise apps like Facebook, Twitter and Co. Thereby it is tough to define clean ranking algorithms….and the compliance stuff is tricky too…

    Is your team actively developing enterprise social search technologies?

    would be great to get in touch…you can check out our service at


  7. Thanks for dropping by Carlo. We us our networks, Connect and OraTweet, which makes the algorithm tweaking easier.

    I've noticed social search growing in momentum over the last year as mainstream adoption has driven usage. It's inevitable.

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