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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Tiny search engines get 'social'

Other startups, too, have had similar visions for "social search." And today, even large competitors like Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc. are pursuing the concept, hoping it'll help make search results more meaningful and thus expand the companies' market share.
Traditional search results are largely based on objective criteria such as counting the number of links other sites have placed to a given Web page. Social search gives people subjective answers -- the best sushi restaurant in Chicago or the best Web site for information about French impressionism -- not necessarily the site visited the most.
"You're essentially breaking up a problem and sending it out to a huge number of people for a query, getting answers back," said Steven Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It kind of ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Other people are going to make associations and connections to information you probably would not have made."
At Prefound, launched earlier this year, users contribute to the knowledge pool by submitting clusters of sites they believe would appeal to like-minded people. As an incentive, the largest contributors even get a share of Prefound's advertising money.
A visitor looking for information on, say, New Jersey beaches can get the user-recommended sites, grouped by users. One user's cluster gives you restaurants, Internet cafes and other information on the coastal town of Ventnor City, N.J.
Results are better the more people contribute sites.
Jones said it's too early to know whether social search will dramatically change the way people look for information on the Internet, but it's already changing the way traditional search companies do business.
Yahoo, a distant second to Google, has entered the game largely by buying some of these startups, namely, a system for discovering new sites based on shared bookmarks, and Flickr, a photo-sharing sites where users tag items with keywords to help friends and strangers alike discover photographs on any topic.
Google has started to incorporate community answers on travel and health questions into its main search engine. It has also established a program allowing users to contribute their own content, tagged with specific attributes, to turn up in search results.
"To some extent the small companies have invented it, but the big companies have been thinking about it for quite a while, too," said Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Steven Marder, co-founder of Eurekster Inc., considered one of the earliest social search sites, said Yahoo's and Google's entry into social search was "validating our philosophy and methodology." [continue]


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