Google’s Social Search Patent Application

A newly published pending patent application from Google provides some insights into the display of social search results. Before digging into it, here’s a quick peek into the evolution of social search on Google.

The Evolution of Social Search on Google

In December of 2009, Google introduced social search, showing social search results to searchers at the bottoms of those search results. The people who were included in those results came from a few different sources according to the Official Google Blog post announcing it. This “social circle of friends” would come from connections listed upon your public Google profile, such as a link to your Twitter profile or FriendFeed profile, or people you chat with or email on Gmail, or from some websites that you might subscribe to on Google Reader. Those social results are specific to the people viewing them, so you would need to be signed into your Google Account to have them displayed to you.

Google also introduced “real time” search results in the same month, which displayed a scrolling set of results relevant to a query that you performed from a number of sources including news sites, blogs, and social sites such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and others:

Our real-time search features are based on more than a dozen new search technologies that enable us to monitor more than a billion documents and process hundreds of millions of real-time changes each day. Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of our new partners that we’re announcing today: Facebook, MySpace, FriendFeed, Jaiku and Identi.ca — along with Twitter, which we announced a few weeks ago.

In January of 2010, Google announced that Search is Getting More Social, adding social results to image search, and links to “My social circle” and “My social content,” which respectively show you the contacts that you might see social results from, and content of yours that might be shared socially with others.

In February of 2011, the Official Google Blog provided us with An update to Google Social Search where we were told that Google would move social search results from the bottoms of search results to mix those social results within web results, based upon their relevance. Those results could come from social sites, or even from the websites or blogs of people whom you might be socially connected to. We were also told that we would start seeing social annotations about some of the web results that we see, such as whether a friend might have publicly shared a link from that site. For example, if someone tweeted about a particular page that appears in search results, you might see their image under the result along with a mention that they “shared it on Twitter” on a certain date.

In July of 2011, the agreement between Google and Twitter, for Twitter to provide a near real time data feed of tweets to Google, expired. While Google’s real time search results included a wide variety of sources at that point, the majority of content shown in those results appeared to be tweets. Google suspended real time search, and indicated that they would probably bring the service back at some point in the future, adding Google Plus results while continuing to show results from many of the other sources that they were showing in the past.

In January of 2012, Google released Search Plus Your World, which allowed searchers to limit their searches to just social results from people they are connected to, at Google Plus, Google Plus profile information in your search results if you search for it from people whom you might be connected to and people whom you might not be connected to, and Google Plus results for people and pages in Google Plus to the right of your search results when you search at Google. Again, you need to be logged into your Google Account to perform the social only searches, or profile searches, or the Google Plus results in the right column.

Google’s Patent on Displaying Social Results

Google published a patent today at the USPTO describing how they might display Social Search Results within their web search results. The patent was filed in December of 2010, and doesn’t specifically mention Google Plus, but rather contemplates showing social results from a potentially wide range of sites that could be considered social sites, including social networking sites and even amongst people who might be members of a shared blogging services and other “social affinity groups.”

In a number of ways, it sounds like it describes the update to Google social search that was announced on the Official Google Blog in January of 2010. The patent was filed in December of 2010, and is based upon a provisional patent which was filed in September of that year. Given the timing of those filings, it seems to fit in many ways with that version of social search.

In some ways, the social search described in the patent application seems like it might a little more limited than the social search Google actually launched that year, and in other ways, it seems a little more expansive.

More limited in that social search might only show social results when a searcher’s query seemed to indicate that the searcher wanted to see social results from a particular social site, though there is an alternative section in the patent description that makes it appear that might not necessarily be absolutely required under this patent filing.

More expansive in that the types of social sites contemplated by the patent filing seems broader that what we may actually be seeing.

The patent filing appears to focus upon showing social results when a query appears to specifically target results from a social site, or if a very recent query from a searcher showed that kind of intent. So, a query such as [twitter hollywood] might be seen as a desire by someone to see Twitter results about Hollywood, and might include the display of results that include content that was endorsed or shared by someone associated with a searcher in a social network site.

We’re told that other members of affinity groups might be identified within a user’s profile by a “list of members of the user’s social affinity group,” and that profile might also include a list of social network sites that a person is a member of.

In some implementations the user identifies himself as a member of a social network site. With permission from the user, the social network site can be examined to identify the members on the social network site (e.g., the members 110a, 110b, 110c, 110d).

The patent application is:

Presenting Social Search Results
Invented by Francesco G. Callari and Matthew E. Kulick
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20120078884
Published March 29, 2012
Filed December 1, 2010

Abstract

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, for detecting malicious system calls. In one aspect, a method includes identifying members of a social affinity group of the user, the social affinity group having members having a relationship to the user. The method includes receiving search results including search results that reference resources associated with members of the social affinity group.

The method includes identifying a first search result that references the social network site. The method includes identifying a second search result that references a resource found on the social network site and associated with a member of the social affinity group. The method includes generating a response to the query comprising instructions that the first search result be presented in proximity to the second search result.

(Note: not sure what the first line in this abstract means by “malicious system calls,” and I suspect that sentence was accidentally included in the abstract. It makes no sense what sover within the context of the rest of this patent filing.)

Displaying Social Results

The title to this pending patent seems to focus upon how social search results would be displayed, and the patent application does describe a number of search interface features:

Pictures – Pictures of people with social results make those results “presumably more interesting,” especially if searchers recognize the images as being of people from their social affinity groups.

Proximity of Social Results – We’re told that social results might be displayed either as nested under a web result, or inline with that result.

Endorsers, Publishers, and Sharers – We’re told that social results might include content that was either endorsed, shared, or published by someone within one of our social groups. There’s no mention of specific social networks or types of endorsing or sharing something, though we’ve seen social results in the past from Google when someone shared a link or retweeted something from Twitter, or shared something on Google Plus or endorsed things with a +1.

Profiles and Posts If a query returns a social profile result or the home page of a social network site, that might be displayed as an inline result within the set of web search results, with no indentation or nesting. If the query also returns blog posts or micro blog posts or status updates from that profile, those might be nested under the home page or profile result. The number of social results that might be displayed could be limited to a certain threshold number.

Age of Results and Affinity between User and Creator of post – Social search results appear to have expiration dates that might change based upon both type and affinity with the searcher. So status updates might only appear for a day since they were created, micro blog post might last for two days, and blog posts might stick around for three days. If there appears to be a “strong” affinity (not really well defined in the patent filing) between the creator and the searcher, that threshold time period might be extended. For instance, instead of three days for a blog post, it might be extended to seven days.

Membership in Social Affinity Groups

The first version of social search from Google included social networking sites where you might have linked to your profile for those sites within your Google Account, contacts in Gmail, and sites that you subscribed to in Google Reader.

This social search patent seems to expand upon that in a few ways.

For instance, social information might be included from people who you might be indirectly connected to through a social network, as a friend of a friend, though specific information about those indirect connections, and images from them might not be displayed. So, if someone who you are connected to on Google Plus shared a web page, and 5 other people who you aren’t directly connected to, but are connected to people whom you are connected to, also shared that web page, you might see a message in social search results that tells you that your direct connection shared it, and 5 other people shared it as well.

In your Google profile, you may indicate that you are an employee of a specific company, or a member of a specific group such as the graduate of a certain school, or the member of a certain professional organization or social club or fan club. You might elect to have those memberships also used to see social results from other members of those groups.

If you subscribe to a particular blog at Google Reader, you might see results from contributors from that blog at places other than just the blog, including their sharing and endorsing activities.

Takeaways

This pending patent provides some insights into Google’s social search that might not be so obvious to casual users of the service, such as the inclusion of social results from GMail contacts or from subscriptions at Google Reader.

Your Google Account profile does include the ability to indicate which schools you went to, where you’re employed, and more, and the patent describes how it could offer an opt-in or opt out ability to be included within social search results based upon those affinity groups, and that doesn’t seem to be something that Google is pursuing at this point. Would some kind of verification be needed for that to work well, even if it’s something as limited, in the case of employment, as having an official email address from the company in question? I’ve seen more than a couple of Google Plus profiles that I’ve questioned the authenticity of, where the owners of those profiles were stating that they work somewhere that they might not.

The “expiration dates” for different types of social search results, such as a longer time period for a blog post, and a shorter time period for a status update or micro-blog post seems to make sense. My expectation is that a shorter message is probably more helpful and useful to a searcher when it comes to messages that might be relevant to queries that are recency-sensitive, such as the news of a natural disaster or an event.

Given that, Google still hasn’t returned real time search results, even though they indicated that they probably would. When they discontinued it, they indicated that it was only on hiatus, and that it would probably be returning with the addition of Google Plus results included. Google started both real time search and social search in the same month back in 2009, and kept them separate back then, even though there’s the potential for overlap between those results. I’m wondering if real time search is more ideally suited for tweets and status updates than it is for Google Plus results, which can often be much longer, and possibly not quite as focused upon recent happenings and events.

Real time results might be associated with user profiles when they come from social networks, but they aren’t necessarily results from people in the same social affinity groups as you. Google likely has some decision making process behind which real time results from which people they’ve shown in the past that likely went beyond just how recent those results might have been.

Social search results have been from people whom you’ve connected with through some social network site, or through a connection on Gmail or subscription at Google Reader. At present, they seem to be limited to things that have been shared or endorsed via Google Plus or through a +1. They are tied to a Google Account, and there’s a possibility that the results that are displayed are being shown not only because they might be relevant to your query, but also based upon some reputation score or credential score.

Will we start seeing social results in Search Plus Your World from places like Twitter and Facebook and other social network sites in the future? It’s possible that we might in the future, but at this stage, Google seems comfortable with showing social results from Google Plus, where they have access to a lot of collateral data about postings and endorsements and sharing, such as IP addresses where things are posted and endorsed and shared from, and timestamps associated with those activities.

It’s possible that Google might try to expand those results beyond just Google Plus, but without things like the agreement by Twitter to share data, Google might be working upon alternative ways to collect social activity data, such as the social media agent approach described in a patent filing acquired by Google when they acquired Katango.

That kind of social activity data collected by such an agent might enable Google to expand their reputation or credential scoring to members of social networking sites outside of Google, possibly for people who link to those other social networks from their Google Account.

Will Google the implementation of Google’s authorship markup lead to blogs being shown in social search results in the future, regardless of whether they’ve been shared or endorsed by people via Google Plus or the Google +1 button?

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20 thoughts on “Google’s Social Search Patent Application”

  1. Bill, do you spend a lof of time on the Google blog or where do you get your information? I’m interested to know more about this agreement, “In July of 2011, the agreement between Google and Twitter, for Twitter to provide a near realtime data feed of tweets to Google, expired.”

    Thanks,

  2. Bill, yet another amazing article. Between you and Rand over at SEOMoz, you two write articles that I actually READ from top to bottom. I’ve noticed some of the changes you’ve talked about, and to confirm my suspicions from reading about the patents gives me validation.

  3. Hi Bill! This is indeed a very interesting article. A lot of people really don’t know how Google works and how it filters out all the results into more relevant and accurate ones yet you made this technical aspect more understandable for Google users. I’d surely follow your blog! Keep up the good work!

  4. Hi Thomas,

    I subscribe to a lot of blogs via RSS feeds, scour through patents at the USPTO and whitepapers at Google Scholar. The news of the Google/Twitter agreement expiring was pretty widely reported on a lot of sites when realtime search at Google disappeared.

  5. Hi Justin,

    Thank you. It is pretty fascinating watching the changes that Google is introducing to social search, and I suspect we will see a lot more.

  6. google is getting a lot more social these days, the web has proved that it is just 1 huge social network and every one who uses the internet uses it in a social way, getting data that someone has posted somewhere in the world and google is one of the largest ways to find data, google will start to use our social data to start to decide search results, the more facebook likes, tweets, retweets, comments on blogs, google + shares, pinterest pins etc.. it will all decide

  7. Google seems to be making a huge play towards using social signals in ranking. In my opinion I think they’re overdoing it as the search results now seem not only cluttered but not exactly what I’m looking for. I hope they figure things out a little better and while they should knock at some of the spammers using social signals I think they’re a little over-corrected for the time being.

  8. Hey, thanks for the post.

    I am starting to wonder if I need to be worried about all of these changes. It seems that just understandning them isn’t going to be enough. Furthermore, I feel that there could be manipulation of this new way Google will use social information. For instance, you can go on Fiverr and purchase tons of likes and I’m sure friends.

    You mentioned that being part of the same “affinity group” but I guess I don’t understand what that really means. I truly hope this doesnt allow for manipulation because many of us have worked hard for what we have accomplished and for it to be taken by some sneaky social media shysters just doesn’t seem right.

    Overall, a great post and I really appreciate it. Thanks again.

  9. Personally, I like what Google did. What’s holding me back from using it more has nothing to do with the changes they made. I’m pissed that Google will not help me recover an account which was hacked/stolen several years ago, which was attached to other personal accounts. So, when I create a new Google account, I have to use something different than what I had already used, to set up the first one. Every time I log into Google, I’m reminded of this and it just makes me mad all over again.

  10. It would be interesting to see how big an impact social search would have on the overall search engine optimization. I suppose the number of twitter/facebook/youtube friends and likes we have will play a part in the search engine algorithm . The opportunists who can see through loopholes and create biz out of it will always be there. While some may frown on them , you can’t deny many of them have creative ideas.

  11. I’ve been thinking for a while that younger web users might be using Facebook and Twitter etc. to search for things of interest and use Google less. I suspect Google is a little worried about the growth of this type of search that does not include Google in any way..

  12. Hi Anoosh,

    Buying friends and followers and connections isn’t necessarily very helpful if those people might befriend anyone for some money, don’t really interact with other people, and don’t interact with you.

    An affinity group is one where the members or related in some manner, like graduating from the same college, or working at the same company, or liking to hike on weekends. The patent notes that people might list those types of things on their profile pages, and it’s possible that Google could make it so that they might see social activities from other people they share those things in common with. So, since I went to the University of Delaware, I might be interested in seeing social activities from other people who went to the University of Delaware. We haven’t seen this kind of functionality in Google Plus or Search Plus Your World, but it’s a possibility.

  13. Hi Henry,

    If you have a lot of real, actual human beings connected to you though a social media account, that means that you will potentially have a lot of people whom might see something you’ve written and posted or shared or endorsed in search results. Followers who are purchased probably won’t.

    Sheer numbers of connections or followers might have limited impact on things like reputation scores if you don’t contribute things to a social network that might be relevant for something people might search for, and might be seen as high quality, and if you don’t interact with others in meaningful ways.

  14. Hi Matt,

    Social networks provide some types of information better than search engines probably do, like things that might be best answered by a friend. For example, what’s a good movie to see this Friday?

    They also may be better sources of information about things that have happened very recently, like a natural disaster or some newsworthy event.

    Google’s real time search, powered by Twitter, was a great way to monitor things going on in the world at any one time. Shame that Twitter and Google didn’t renew their agreement to use Twitter’s data in real time.

    Google does need to evolve to meet how people search, and what they search for.

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