Google Has Stage 2 Social Networking Cancer

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.

50 replies
  1. 1
    Steve says:

    I noticed that + hasn’t been working in Google for the last little while now.

  2. 2
    cleek says:

    the “+” may be an anachronism.

    i used it all the time. it’s a necessity when doing searches on arcane technical things where results are few – Google would rather tell you about all the awesome things it found using variations on what you typed.

  3. 3
    mistermix says:

    @cleek: Too bad for you, cleek, or should I say, too bad for you +cleek, your new Google name.

  4. 4
    cleek says:

    also, Google+ will never be interesting to me until they get Scrabble.

  5. 5
    PeakVT says:

    It’s been gone for a couple of days.

    Also, Google started flipping connections over to the https port sometime yesterday. I have no particular objections, but it would have been nice of them to announce it (which maybe they did and I missed).

    ETA: It seems like we’re back to the days of AltaVista, which returned a lot of results of marginal utility for anything not common. Google isn’t much better a lot of the time.

  6. 6
    cleek says:

    @mistermix:
    i’d prefer cleek++.

    why is Google is trying to make me hate it?

  7. 7
    The Raven says:

    Use quotes instead. It’s inconvenient, but no big thing.

    More serious is the bias that results from using G+ user data. The biggest group of pseudonymous internet users is women, after all, and the G+ names policy discourages women’s names. Applied strictly, Google’s names policy shuts out women who need to avoid stalking and harassment.

    But it goes wider than that: all people who are at risk from using traceable names will be lower-ranked in Google’s search results. This would have made, for instance, the liberal blogosphere significantly harder to form: think of Atrios and Digby. What it will do in the third world does not even bear thinking.

    Yikh!

  8. 8
    The Raven says:

    @cleek: “why is Google is trying to make me hate it?”

    Their director of social networking is a member of the 1%

  9. 9
    MattF says:

    As the Wired story notes, Google used to have an implicit AND between terms in all its searches– but stopped doing that around two years ago. So, dropping the ‘+’ operator is a non-trivial change. You can now (apparently) force the old behavior by putting every term in a search in quotes but that’s a hack, and I’d prefer not to… Hate to ask, but what’s Bing’s behavior wrt ANDs?

  10. 10
    THE says:

    If you’re worried about cross infection of your info from G+ to your Search, use unconnected accounts. After all G+ needs to be real name, Search not so much. You could even log out before searching. Or keep different browsers for search and G+, so use Chrome for G+ and Firefox for Search or whatever.

  11. 11
    The Raven says:

    Other way round, I’m worried about biasing search results towards G+ users, who are a privileged class.

  12. 12
    J.W. Hamner says:

    So your argument is that more individualized data about users is going to make their search engine worse? Counterintuitive!

  13. 13
    Skepticat says:

    Dogpile

  14. 14
    Odie Hugh Manatee says:

    I hate the idea of having my internet ‘shaped’ by the likes of Google and Yahoo. I don’t want to be funneled information that has been ‘tailored’ to me. I flush my cache at every shutdown, delete all cookies, all Flash/Shockwave cache data, block ads, ad images, scripts and such, all to ensure that they know as little about my family and myself as possible. Social networking? Fuck that, my life is private and plenty active without adding that bullshit to it.

    My internet life is lean and clean, just the way I want it.

  15. 15
    THE says:

    Yeah, I’m a privacy freak too Odie. No Social networks for me.
    But I’m sure all my acquaintances post images of me on FB. There’s no way to stop it really there isn’t.

  16. 16
    jayackroyd says:

    Irritating ads are one thing.

    But,as Eli Pariser has documented, Google tailors results to your previous results. If you’re selections show a liberal bias, you are presented with more liberally-biased results. If the algorithm is going to add in what your friends, and more trusted friends pick in similar situations, you’re going from an echo chamber to a rabbit hole. Worse, is you don’t know it.

    It’s the equivalent of introducing a FOX and an anti-FOX (not one with three hours of Joe Scarborough) and having your machine tuned to anti-FOX while cousin Brian is getting apparently unbiased very different search results from the same query terms you use.

  17. 17
    The Raven says:

    @J.W. Hamner: Well, I don’t know about worse. But biased towards a Google-defined privileged class, definitely.

  18. 18
    Odie Hugh Manatee says:

    @THE:

    I’m glad to say that my image isn’t on any social networking site. Not that it’s that important (image w/o data) but I plan on keeping it that way.

    Personal information is not only private, in the wrong hands it can be exploited for personal gain or profit.

    At my expense. Fuck that, let the sheeple have at it. That will keep the wolves busy so they leave me alone.

  19. 19
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    Slightly off topic or at least off target, but has anyone else noticed that just recently Google Translator will often translate spelled-out numbers as numerals instead of words in the target language?

    e.g.

    I’ve used it now and then when I need to write out numbers in various languages, and learning that the way you write “two thousand eleven” in Dutch is “2011” isn’t really what I had in mind.

  20. 20

    So we’re concerned about google being totally stupid and reneging their “Don’t be evil” slogan and the possible infiltration of dumdums’ preferences in ads simply because said dumdums are whackaloons that we’re related to and are in one of our circles.

    Meanwhiles, everytime we post on wingnuts and how wingnutty they can be, the google ads on this site are one of three things: ads from “grassroots” right-wing sites to get Ann Coulter’s column for free, the same in service of newsmax, worldnutdaily, dick Morris, et. al to sign on to some meaningless petition to “REPEAL OBAMA?” all under google’s assumption that all political ads apply to any site that talks about “politics”, OR an ad for whatever you’ve been researching about shopping for lately. In my case, I keep seeing deals for mattresses. (I left my last bed back in the Midwest, and am in the market.)

    Google is getting more and more disappointing. Facebook is a familial/friend-based gossip site.

    However, earlier tonight, via the Maps app on my iPhone which is powered by google, I loaded it while I was walking, and I noticed that when you are foot mobile, the map app reorients the immediate layout according to your heading, pace, and location. I found it to be fucking amazing, quite simply.

    Yes, the corporations in charge of these amazing technologies are more and more, continuing to escalate their level of assholery. It remains, that bottom line, the technology is amazing. For now, I still pay Netflix $8 a month, and I pay Google nothing but access beyond my privacy for use of what they provide. It’s all a toss up, and there’s no such thing as zero-sum anymore.

  21. 21
    Punchy says:

    This is great news for John+McCain

  22. 22
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    So, all it took was google adding + to their name to get some people to stop obsessing over facebook. It is a lot closer to a swastika than a #.

  23. 23
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Just fiddling around with this and putting each word on a separate line seems to beat it.

    Playing around in French though, nope.

    And if you put “eighty” and “one” on separate lines it gives you:

    quatre-vingts
    l’un

    which isn’t right for several reasons, I mean it’s close but if you didn’t know the language at all and needed to know how to write it that wouldn’t tell you how.

  24. 24
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Punchy: “Google Plus Sizes”. For all egos big and tall.

  25. 25
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    Also, to point out the obvious, most of you aren’t the 90% of normal google users. I doubt most of the world even knows that you can use a + to help you with searches.

  26. 26
    gene108 says:

    its obsession with Facebook

    It isn’t an obsession. Facebook is Google’s #1 competitor and could really kick Google’s ass in the near future, if Google doesn’t find ways to diversify itself from on-line advertising as its main source of income.

    Google is doing well, but some estimates have Facebook surpassing Google for on-line advertising revenue.

    As more people spend time on Facebook and less on trafficking the internet via Google, look for Facebook’s status to increasingly threaten Google’s cash-cow – on-line advertising revenue.

  27. 27
    gene108 says:

    @Odie Hugh Manatee:

    Personal information is not only private, in the wrong hands it can be exploited for personal gain or profit.

    I hope folks realize the whole reason for Facebook’s existence is to exploit your personal information for gain and profit.

    The tolerance you have with allowing Mark Zuckerburg to make billions off of you may vary, but Facebook gets its money by selling whatever information it can datamine from your Facebook activities to the highest bidders.

  28. 28
    mistermix says:

    @gene108: I hear what you’re saying but Google doesn’t have to beat Facebook to be successful, and the reason I call it an obsession is because if they’re only thinking about beating Facebook, they’re not thinking about making their public search and ad serving better, and that business is not going away even if Facebook gets bigger.

  29. 29
    gene108 says:

    @mistermix:

    that business is not going away even if Facebook gets bigger.

    Eyeballs on the webpage drive the ad revenue business. If those eyeballs are on Facebook, they aren’t on Google pushed sites, thus decreasing Google’s share of the on-line ad business (which is still their core business by a large margin).

    It’s only a matter of time before Facebook starts expanding to other things, like on-line search.

    At that point what will Google do?

    Being top dog isn’t guaranteed for any business.

    Google is right to obsess about Facebook. Where that obsession leads them may be is to make bad decisions, but that’s a different matter.

  30. 30
    John D. says:

    No. No. No.

    Dammit, mistermix, you and bloody near everybody else keeps getting this fucking WRONG. When you say

    Today’s new symptom is removing the “+” search operator, which was part of Google since it started.

    you are utterly rewriting history. Google did not NEED the + operator when it began. It treated all terms as if they had an inherent + attached already, since Google only supported AND queries from the beginning. It was, you might say, their defining characteristic (though you could make a case for their counter indicating the massive numbers of pages crawled at the bottom being the defining characteristic, but that was cosmetic.) The AND-only query syntax is what drove techies in massive numbers to Google, since their result sets tended to be infinitely more helpful than Lycos, Excite, Yahoo, or Altavista (though the last was merely worse than Google instead of godawful).

    It was only much later they added that support in.

    The Wayback Machine, Feb 1999, Google’s Help Page:

    Google only supports “and” queries. That is, it only returns pages that include all the query terms. The + operator, which enforces “and” behavior on some search engines, is unnecessary on Google.

    Things change on the web. Deal.

  31. 31
    Violet says:

    I went looking for Google Advanced Search to try to create a specific search on something the other day and couldn’t find it. Did they take that way too or did the move it so it’s harder to find? Or did I somehow just not see it on the regular search page?

  32. 32
    Dustin says:

    This is the Internet John D, nobody “deals”. It’s like the tech blog industry getting their fainting couches out and collectively bitching about the new reader and email theme because they didn’t notice you can set line spacing to compact.

  33. 33
    Lol says:

    So basically, the feature hasn’t been eliminated, you just had to use it in a slightly different way? And this is news?

  34. 34
    RareSanity says:

    I thought that the whole Google Reader thing yesterday was a bit overblown.

    However, this is a bit different.

    Google Web Search, should always be a separate entity from everything else Google does. No information gathered from anyone should affect search results. There’s no problem with it influencing ads that are displayed, but search results should be consistent, no matter who is doing the searching.

    You are not adding “intelligence”, by biasing search results, you are removing it.

  35. 35
    mistermix says:

    @Dustin: You can’t set the Reader theme to compact or cozy.

  36. 36
    Nutella says:

    @Violet:

    Yeah, Advanced Search gone. WTF?!?!? I guess we’re all stuck with Google’s interpretation of what we should have searched for. Or they hid it.

    Yes, they hid it. Press the wagon wheel icon at the top right to see the Advanced Search link. (Can’t they hire any decent UX people?)

  37. 37
    Dustin says:

    @mistermix: You’re right, and yet again my ipod typing truncates too much. Though there is a simple workaround if you’re using chrome: http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/116890

    That being said as someone who uses reader multiple times a day to keep track of everything I still think the freakout in the blogosphere yesterday was a bit of a joke.

  38. 38
    different-church-lady says:

    Facebook does not want to organize the world’s information, nor do they want to make it universally accessible to anyone who doesn’t pay them for it.

    Fixed that for you.

  39. 39
    different-church-lady says:

    @Violet: It’s still there on the tool menu — upper right corner, the gear icon.

  40. 40
    different-church-lady says:

    To achieve this goal, Facebook must sacrifice sophistication for their cochamamie idea of what ease of use is.

    Fixed that for you too.

  41. 41
    Calouste says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    Bing translates numbers the way you want them.

  42. 42
    Joel says:

    I never used the + operator and wasn’t even really aware of it until today. I’ve always used quotes, as in strings.

  43. 43
    Brachiator says:

    @gene108:

    Eyeballs on the webpage drive the ad revenue business. If those eyeballs are on Facebook, they aren’t on Google pushed sites, thus decreasing Google’s share of the on-line ad business (which is still their core business by a large margin).

    That’s not quite it. Google presents ads to potential buyers. The entire premise of Facebook is to sell people and their friends to advertisers (and to turn Facebook into a closed ecosystem separate from the larger Web).

    Equally disturbing is the practice of companies (Spotify, for example) to require a Facebook logon before you can use their service. There is also the practice, which is probably illegal, of contests that require you to like a product on Facebook or create a Twitter post in order to qualify to win.

    Facebook’s model is far more insidious (for now) than Google practices. But it is not necessarily more effective in appealing to advertisers in the long run.

  44. 44
    Nutella says:

    @Brachiator:

    Facebook’s model is far more insidious (for now) than Google practices. But it is not necessarily more effective in appealing to advertisers in the long run.

    True, and that’s why it worries me that Google seems to be trying to become FaceBook rather than working on its own strengths. Google built a hugely profitable business and a very useful service by providing (what appears to be) unbiased search results clearly distinguished from personalized ads on the same page. The more biased their search results appear to be the more they undercut their fundamental market advantage. Replacing that with a poor copy of FaceBook doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.

  45. 45
    Joel says:

    @Nutella: I’m not really worried. Google is a big company with a diverse portfolio. I’m not much for whinging about tech (notable exception: Adobe and their endless updates), so I’ll use another oft-complained about company as my example.

    Microsoft has launched a lot of terrible products over the past decade, yet their core product – Office – has remained relatively unmolested. It even works much faster now than it did ten years ago.

  46. 46
    J.W. Hamner says:

    @Nutella:

    Google built a hugely profitable business and a very useful service by providing (what appears to be) unbiased search results clearly distinguished from personalized ads on the same page.

    Right, but there is obviously an entire industry devoted to “search engine optimization”, so I’m not sure why preserving the illusion of unbiased search results is better than them using information gleaned from Google+ to help rank results.

    AFAIK, all they’ve said is that they plan on studying the +1 ‘s and seeing if it makes it better. I don’t believe they’ve every given any indication that they are going to use your personal preferences to cull results.

  47. 47
    cyntax says:

    @Nutella:

    Thinking about the insidious side of Google, it’s worth reading Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble. He explores how the customization that Google, Facebook, and others do, distorts your view of the world by giving you the news they think you want. For example:

    In the market of personalization, data is currency.
    __
    Companies like Google and Acxiom track your clicks, purchases and likes, converting them into a personal profile they can then sell to targeted advertisers.
    __
    Up until now that profile has been fairly static. What online advertisers know about you – your location, gender, purchasing preferences, favorite news sources – doesn’t change much from day to day, let alone from hour to hour. Your profile is also largely based on (semi-)conscious choices – what you click on, like, etc. – and advertisers can only infer so much about your physical and emotional state.
    __
    But that may all change in the next year or two, according to Tim Ferris, one of a growing number of “Self-quantifiers.”

  48. 48
    Egilsson says:

    Why can’t Google let me filter out search results that have bizrate and all those other worthless product aggregators that offer -zero- additional content?

    They are seriously destroying one of the best aspects of the internet.

  49. 49
    NonWonderDog says:

    @Egilsson:

    google -site:google.com

    That returns every result for google *except* for results on the google.com domain.

    google site:google.com

    ^ does the opposite.

    I don’t think there’s a way to define a global blacklist, though.

  50. 50

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