"Your World" Or Their World? Google's New Feature Controls Personal Info In Search [Updated]

If Google's to be trusted, Google is the only source you need when Googling around for information. At least, that's the impression one gets from Google's new "Your World" feature.

Google's official press blog about the news sets things out pretty clearly: "Google Search has always been about finding the best results for you," it begins, then points out that, "Sometimes that means results from the public web, but sometimes it means your personal content or things shared with you by people you care about." According to Google, it's been letting you down since, "These wonderful people and this rich personal content is currently missing from your search experience. Search is still limited to a universe of webpages created publicly, mostly by people you’ve never met." But now the fix is in, as today it's "changing that by bringing your world, rich with people and information, into search."

But it mainly works if your world is hinged on a Google+ profile, or you use Picasa, and so does everyone you know.

Google argues that it's merely a continuation of the trend it began by introducing Social Search and expanded on with Google+, and it does give a couple of useful case studies where its system really has value. Google can know who you are and who your friends are, even in a complex social network. Or, as Google puts it, "When I search for [Ben Smith], I now find my dear friend Ben every time, instead of the hundreds of other Ben Smiths out there (no offense to all of them!)." That's definitely useful, as is the fact "you’ll find profile autocomplete predictions for various prominent people from Google+, such as high-quality authors from our authorship pilot program." 

But when you select an author profile, if you’re a signed-in Google+ user, you’ll be prompted to add them to your circles "right on your search results page," Google says. So this is not only mostly about expanding my use of Google+ by heavily emphasizing that I use it when I'm merely searching for something. According to Google, now when you're signed in to its services, and Your World is working "if you search for a topic like [music] or [baseball], you might see prominent people who frequently discuss this topic on Google+ appearing on the right-hand side of the results page." 

Google closes its blog by emphasising privacy and options—you can turn off Your World with a jab at a switch on the search page to see unemphasized search results as you would've previously (or if you're not logged in), and you can even set that as your default. Attention is also drawn to the added security of SSL encryption of personalized results data, and the public-versus-private options within Google+'s sharing options.

But that's beside the point. Google is splattering personal and social-inferred results all over its search results page from one social network source only: Google itself. Not Facebook, which is the world's biggest such net nor Twitter—which once drove Google to amazing heights of real-time search and newsiness. Sure Google+ is apparently growing fast (although some question the data as dubious), but isn't Google really pulling a land grab with this trick? Isn't it subtly and continuously promoting its own social network at every opportune moment in its search service, at the detriment of its better peers? 

"As always, our goal is to provide you with the most relevant and comprehensive search results possible," a spokesperson tells Fast Company via email. "That’s why for years now we’ve been working with our social search features to help you find the most relevant information from your friends and social connections, no matter what site that content is on. However, Google does not have access to crawl all the information on some sites, so it’s not possible for us to surface all that content. Google also doesn’t have access to the social graph information from some sites, so it’s not possible to help you find information from those people you’re connected to." Fair enough, but it may not be enough for to help Google fend off accusations of preferential treatment—what do they expect their peers to do, let Google scrape their precious social graph? The spokesman also confirmed Your World is turned on by default, and that while there's no super-direct way of preventing your data showing up in someone else's World data it wants "users to be able to search over any content they have access to see. The important part is to ensure you’re sharing content with right people. If you change access rights in Google+ or Picasa, those changes will be reflected in search."

Still, there's an inherent PR risk in exposing to every logged in user exactly how deep Google's insight into their social sphere is—a creepiness factor that's hard to combat. And considering how Google has been repeatedy slapped for privacy issues, misleading search results, and allegedly monopolistic practices the world over, I'd say you can set the timer on a Your World-related lawsuit in 3 ... 2 ...

Update: The launch of this new service has caused a veritable explosion of disbelief online. Twitter decided to register its distaste, citing the lack of "real time" news Google+ has and noting it's a biased system. Google, incredibly, first said (using Google+, of course) it was "surprised" by Twitter's comments then blamed Twitter for Google's actions, noting Twitter decided not to renew the real time search contract in mid-2011. Although we can only guess what the terms and conditions of the deal were, Twitter obviously decided it was unfavorable—and it came shortly before Google launched its own competitor to Twitter. Google's Eric Schmidt even spoke in an interview to argue Google+ isn't "favored" at all in Your World...despite the fact it's the only social graph available in Your World, and Google's decided not to even link to the publicly accessible statuses for, say, a popular band or brand from Twitter or Facebook.

[Image: Flickr user dullhunk; thumbnail: AZRainman]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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  • Sheena Rajan

    Hey, whatever happened to real-time search!? It was super awesome to have Twitter in search results, especially for minute to minute info on news.