Former Bing Product Lead: Why Personalized Social Search Is Unrealistic (For Now)

“If every user that comes [to Bing or Google] is getting a personalized experience based on Facebook data, based on the web graph, based on the social graph–holy crap, that’s a lot of processes to do,” says Mark Johnson. “I think the economics just aren’t there.”


The future of search is social. Google and Microsoft have tied their rival engines to social, mining data from various networks (Twitter, Facebook) to deliver personalized results based on what your friends and followers recommend, rather than some lifeless algorithm. Google even launched its own social network, Google+, for this end. But according to former Bing product lead Mark Johnson, now the CEO of Zite, the $17 billion search industry is still a far way off from becoming social.

“If every user that comes [to Bing or Google] is getting a personalized experience based on Facebook data, based on the web graph, based on the social graph–holy crap, that’s a lot of processes to do,” Johnson says. “You’d have to show significant increases in quality of search results to justify the server costs involved. I think the economics just aren’t there–at least now, with the costs of servers.”

Prior to joining Zite, Johnson helped build a slew of search-related startups, including SideStep (which Kayak acquired for $180 million), Kosmix (which Walmart bought for a reported $300 million), and PowerSet, the natural language search engine acquired in 2008 for an estimated $100 million by Microsoft, where Johnson stayed for a few years to work on Bing. But now because of unrealistic costs related to personalizing search, Johnson is focused on content delivery with Zite.

“The economics of search prevent it from being personalized,” he says. “The economics of search engines are based on pre-caching queries. Because if you have to go to the server to calculate every single query, your front-end costs go up. If Bing or Google sees a query that it’s never seen before, and had to actually calculate a result on the fly, we’re talking about using time on hundreds or thousands of servers. That’s why I’m glad we–as in Zite–got out of the search business.”


While both Google and Microsoft have hailed social as crucial to the future of search, it’s so far only been implemented as a basic annotation system. When searching on Bing and Google, social results are marked with annotations indicating which of your friends share a particular link. For example, a search for “Fast Company” might return certain articles shared by my followers on Twitter or “Liked” by my Facebook friends.

The two companies have big plans to integrate social data into search in a more intuitive way. “When I go to Google search and I type in ‘mortgage,’ we give you a page full of answers in 50 milliseconds,” Vic Gundotra, Google’s SVP of social, recently told Fast Company. “But you don’t need a mortgage in 50 milliseconds–you need a mortgage next week. And there’s no way to tell Google that I’m interested in something durably, whether that’s a mortgage or kite surfing or Bob Dylan. We want to create a means of users taking the data that is there and making Google services better by having that data. We’re thinking that we already have the users. What we have to do is change their mode of usage with Google, from a light relationship with Google to a deeper, more valuable relationship with Google that services them better.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Bing director Stefan Weitz, too. “There are more signals than just ‘Likes,'” Weitz told Fast Company in May. “There are tweets, check-ins–when I’m at Spur restaurant in Seattle, and I say it’s the best lamb tartare and post that on Yelp, that’s a signal as well. There’s a world where all these social and personal signals–whatever you want to call them–are consumed and indexed and made sense of.”

But the issue has never been having access to social data, says Johnson–it’s figuring out how to incorporate it into search in a way that’s beneficial to the user and cost effective. “In the market, data is always seen as this panacea. Like, ‘Oh, we have all this data!’ But doing something with that data is really frickin’ tough,” Johnson says. “Having data alone does not give you an analysis of that data. I think that’s a problem with a lot of advertisers–sure, they’re sitting on mounds of data. But they don’t know what to do with it.”

Johnson believes big tech companies such as Google and Microsoft are the only ones capable of mining all this social data–but don’t expect it to happen soon. “It’s funny, you hear this about Google and Bing: ‘Just tweak the algorithms,'” Johnson says. “Tweaking algorithms is not simple! The outside world makes it seem like it’s so easy to just ‘bubble it up to the top.'”

When I broached this subject with Bing’s Weitz in May, he acknowledged social search was still in its infancy, despite both Google and Microsoft promoting social search as if it’s already arrived. 


Said Weitz at the time, “It’s not 10 years, not five years away, it’s a couple years away–tops–where social is literally so imbued into the experience that it’s just another ranking factor like anything else.”

[Image: Flickr user Jer Kunz]

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.