Google gets personal, searches your world, not just the Web
Starting Tuesday, Google will pluck only the results most relevant to you -- and not just from billions of Web pages but from the personal stuff that you and your connections privately share.
The idea, says Google Fellow Amit Singhal, is that Google now searches your world, not just the Web, and serves up results that combine both for your eyes only.
"Your world was missing from search until now," he said. "We are bringing your world into search."
It's not just a radical departure for Google. It's a major salvo in the Internet search giant's rivalry with Facebook for eyeballs and ad dollars.
Google, with founder Larry Page at the helm, has been looking to blunt the growing influence of Facebook, which is on the verge of a $100-billion initial public stock offering.
Google has been adding more personal touches to its search engine as people flock to Facebook, the Web's most popular hangout with more than 800 million users who share personal photos, updates and recommendations. Now it's looking to combine its dominant search engine with its nascent social networking service, Google+.
"It's one of the most significant things Google has ever done in search," said longtime Google observer Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com.
As a child, his favorite fruit was the sweet brown chikoo. Singhal was reminded of the fruit a few years ago when his wife held a tiny brown fur ball in the palm of her hand. They decided to name their 4-week-old miniature schnauzer Chikoo and privately shared photos of him as he grew with family members. Now both meanings of Chikoo show up when Singhal is logged into Google and searches the word.
Google, like rival Microsoft's Bing, has been working for years to make search more personal and more social. Google says with this move it's transforming into a search engine that understands not only content but also people and their relationships.
It's doing this in three ways. First, it's expanding search beyond public Web pages to the photos and posts you and others have shared privately. Second, as you type a person's name into Google, it will automatically suggest people you are close to or may be interested in. Third, Google is guiding users to profiles and Google+ pages related to the topic of interest.
But how will users react?
Some users may not want or understand why their personal information is appearing in its search results. Google said it would explain the change to users at the top of Web pages.
Even though Google is just making information more visible and easier to find, it may encounter the same kind of resistance that Facebook did when it rolled out its new feature Timeline, Sullivan said.
Like Facebook, Google isn't asking users whether they want the new feature, it's just turning it on for all English-speaking users over the next few days. If you don't want the feature, you have to turn it off.
Google may also be seen as favoring its own products in search results, an allegation that already has made Google a target of an antitrust investigation, Sullivan said. For example, instead of sending someone searching for Britney Spears to her website, Facebook page or Twitter account, Google will suggest her Google+ page, giving the service a "huge advantage," he said.
"It makes you question if Google is doing the best thing for the searcher or the best thing for Google," Sullivan said.
Google says it's hamstrung because Facebook fences off its website from Google's search engine.
"We want users to have control over what personal content they can search for at Google. We don't want third parties dictating to users what they can or can't search for in Google," Singhal said. "Based on the current policies at many social networks, users don't have that control."
"This is a really big gun pointed back at Facebook," he said. "This may cause Facebook to say that now that Google has merged social and search, that's what it needs to do as well."
Facebook has an alliance with Microsoft's Bing to lure traffic away from Google, which handles about two of every three Internet search requests. Microsoft owns a 1.6% stake in Facebook. But the partnership has not yielded much, Sullivan said.
Google's new personal approach also raises a broader societal issue, Sullivan said.
"Until now, search has largely been a common experience," Sullivan said. Jon Stewart gets a lot of laughs over Rick Santorum's "Google problem" (a search for his last name brings up a graphically sexual definition of "santorum"). But if search results are tailored to the beliefs we hold and the people we know, chances are "we might not actually see the same thing Jon Stewart sees anymore," Sullivan said.
-- Jessica Guynn
Photos: Google's new "personal" search results. Credit: Google.