Experts debate relevance of ‘social search’

Researchers attending a conference on internet searching were divided on the use of social networking for serious research, with some saying traditional search engines are the more practical choice. Others, however, said social media can be effective tools for specific research tasks, such as conducting a survey or taking a snapshot of people’s interests.

Chris Sherman, president of Searchwise, said Google, Yahoo, Microsoft’s Bing, and newcomer WolframAlpha are the four main search engines that benefit researchers.

"Web search has consolidated into a few major players–and it’s likely to stay that way," he said Sept. 14 at the opening session of the WebSearch University conference in Washington, D.C. He added that competition among the major search companies has increased, which also increases innovation.

"Social media, I think it’s a fad. I think it will not have lasting value as a search medium. I think that there’s a lot of focus on searching Facebook and searching Twitter and things like that. I just don’t see it. I see lots and lots of problems with that," he said.

Sherman said Twitter, which he said many people consider to be a real-time search engine, is not a search engine by definition. He explained that while Twitter users can present a question to their followers, the results are nothing like those from a true search engine.

But Robert Berkman, editor of The Information Advisor, argued that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter lend themselves to ample opportunities for additional research. He described returns from Twitter as being observations as opposed to analysis, which is what’s often found using a search engine.

Searching social networks is what Berkman referred to as social searching, which relies less on algorithms, link analysis, and other quantitative methods and more on retrieving and prioritizing information from members of one’s personal, trusted social network.

"So the premise behind social search is that it’s not just the wisdom of crowds, but the wisdom of your personalized ‘crowd,’" Berkman said.

The lack of content that Twitter or Facebook wall entries provide is something that is of concern to Sherman.

"There just aren’t the signals in 140 characters that allow any kind of technology to do a relevance analysis that Google can do with a whole page of text that’s tightly interlinked with lots of other documents on the web," he said.

He said social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are trying to market themselves as real-time search engines as a way to compete with Google.

Berkman listed 11 ways to use Facebook for research:

• Researching people;
• Researching networks;
• Searching for interest groups;
• Creating groups;
• Conducting a survey;
• Creating an online focus group;
• Performing strategic listening;
• Searching for resources in a specific field;
• Searching for events and conferences;
• Finding library-oriented groups and applications;
• Searching the Facebook lexicon to see what users are discussing; and
• Using Facebook advertisements to do light market and demographic research.

Twitter can be used for research, Berkman said, by:

• Following breaking news, such as the Hudson River plane landing and the election aftermath in Iran;
• Looking at ethnographic marketing insights;
• Gaining understanding of key industry influences;
• Being part of a trusted network;
• Keeping up with press releases and announcements;
• Doing light competitive intelligence on companies, people, brands, etc.;
• Following libraries that use Twitter for outreach; and
• Conducting an instant poll, sharing links, and maintaining social ties between members of a research project team.

While Sherman said he saw social media for research as being a passing fad, he said it has its practical uses for things such as customer service, public relations, and reputation management.

"I think we’re really in an age now where, for major general web search, it’s game over. We’re going to be [having] the players that we have now for quite some time ahead," he said.


WebSearch University 2009

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