It isn’t often fatal, even though the survival statistics make one pause, but Google is showing all the signs of letting the Google+ tumor metastasize. I reviewed the patient’s history yesterday, when they scheissed up Google Reader. Today’s new symptom is removing the “+” search operator, which was part of Google since it started. That latter change may not be very important, since Google has been devoting a lot of engineering effort into figuring out what you really mean when you type in a search query, so the “+” may be an anachronism. But it’s still disturbing to see that Google will risk the quality of its core offering when Google+ wants something, because it shows that its obsession with Facebook is polluting what it does really well, which is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
That mission statement is important. Facebook does not want to organize the world’s information, nor do they want to make it universally accessible. Instead, they want to organize the information of a private group with shared real-world interests and ties, which means they provide tools to share messages and media within your real-world social unit. What’s key about that is that the relative importance and quality of items shared in your social network is determined by a different metric than things shared in the the rest of the world. In your social network, even the stupid may contribute something important — Aunt Mabel’s pictures of Timmy’s kindergarten graduation are highly rated by all, even though Mabel is a charter member of the Tea Party and can’t spell or write a simple declarative sentence. Mabel’s pictures and family news may be so important that the group will ignore the Glenn Beck conspiracy theories she tends to pass around. Put more simply, people tend to tolerate more bullshit from friends than strangers, and Facebook is set up to allow that.
If Google begins to use information gleaned from my Google+ settings to influence its search results, I don’t see how they keep the bullshit I’ll tolerate from friends from polluting those results. Just because I didn’t push back on Aunt Mabel’s Goldline spam doesn’t mean I think that keeping Kruggerands under my bed is a good investment. How will Google know that if it thinks that my Google+ actions reveal some deep truth about my preferences and interests?
In addition to affecting search, the Facebook cancer will also hurt Google’s software. What Google means by “universally accessible” is that everyone can potentially get at the world’s information if they can figure out Google’s software. What Facebook means by “universally accessible” is that everyone must be able to sign up and post their status on their Facebook page. To achieve this goal, Facebook must sacrifice sophistication for ease of use. Historically, Google has provided more sophisticated offerings if the complexity involved was necessary to get at the underlying information. Now I wonder if their social networking obsession will lead them to dumb down their interface to accommodate the Aunt Mabels of the world. It would be a damn shame to throw away the world’s best search interface just so some old lady can share pictures of her azaleas with her nephews.