Foursquare, Google, And The Search Schism Of 2012

Earlier this week, Google launched Search+. The new features heavily promote content from Google+, the company’s social network, at the top of its search results, all but turning the search engine into a massive advertisement–a big no-no if you’ve been paying any attention to Google’s antitrust hearings.

Earlier this week, Google launched Search+, and immediately the tech world cried foul. The new features heavily promote content from Google+, the company’s social network, at the top of its search results, all but turning the search engine into a massive advertisement for one of Google’s own products–a big no-no if you’ve been paying any attention to Google’s antitrust hearings.


But Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt says the search engine isn’t favoring Google+ content; rather, it would treat content from Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks equally in its search results–that is, if Twitter and Facebook would only grant it access to their data.

It’s a smart but incredibly shady move on Google’s part. On the one hand, Google has made it sound like it has fairly offered to index competitor social data in its results; on the other hand, Google is essentially extorting these competitors for their social data. If Facebook and Twitter ultimately decide not to permit Google access to their data, that’s great news for Google, which will get to promote its own social network in the billions of queries it receives daily; and if Facebook and Twitter ultimately decide to permit Google access to their data, then that’s great news for Google, too, since Google will improve its social search, and eliminate any competitive edge from Facebook, Twitter, Bing, and any other social or search networks.

Today, we see the result of this new world Google has created. Foursquare unveiled its own personalized search engine on Thursday, taking advantage of the startup’s bread and butter: the 1.5 billion user check-ins it mines for location and merchant results. Now, by heading to, users can search for local restaurants or bars or trips based on this data. Essentially, this is Foursquare’s version of Google Maps, and it’s an indication of how fragmented the future of search might become.

Before, search was always performed in one place. We’d head to Google, Yahoo, or AskJeeves, search engines that would crawl the web and index every page for us. But now, as the data these engines mine becomes proprietary and more valuable to its owners, Google and modern engines such as Bing are losing access to indexing that data. So, if you want to search the social graph, you must go directly to Facebook. If you want to see real-time news and status updates, you search on Twitter, which ended its data-sharing agreement with Google last summer. And if you want mobile and location data, does Foursquare have any plans to share its data with Google or Bing?

“No,” says Alex Rainert, Foursquare’s head of product. “We’re focused on search around the intersection of social and local.”

While Rainert says it’s hard to speak to the larger strategic question, as a consumer, he does feel that “you expect to go to a place like Google or Bing and find the best content you’re looking for.” But the more data becomes core to the businesses of Google’s competitors, the more fragmented search will become. So you’re not only heading to Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare for their social data, but you might also be heading to Kayak for travel searches or Instagram for images or LinkedIn for professional networking.


For this reason, these services can’t give into Google and let the search giant index their data. “In effect, Google would be forcing them to hurt their business if they were to open the data up,” argued M.G. Siegler in a blog post

That’s why Google has developed Google+ to compete with Facebook and Twitter, and why it’s acquired companies such as ITA to compete with engines like Kayak. It’s why Bing has worked hard to partner with Facebook, Twitter, and Kayak. 

And it’s why with Search+, Google has caused a tremendous amount of controversy, and potentially an issue with the FTC, for promoting its own product in its search results.

“For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results anytime they wanted to find something on the Internet,” Twitter said in a statement. “Often, they want to know more about world events and breaking news. Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million Tweets every day on virtually every topic…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 organizations and Twitter users.”

Responded Google, in a post on Google+: “We are a bit surprised by Twitter’s comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us.”

If you want to find that post, feel free to search on Google.


[Image: Flickr user CowGummy]


About the author

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