The Noisy Channel

 

Reference vs. Referral

April 10th, 2009 · 8 Comments · General

I just read an interesting “guessay” by designer Joshua Porter entitled “The Slow Erosion of Google Search“–which in turn cites an insightful essay by Brynn Evans, “Why social search won’t topple Google (anytime soon)“. Brynn’s tweet alerted me to the Porter essay, which just shows that social media can have directed cycles!

But what really caught my attention was the following comment by Mike Susz on Porter’s post:

google vs. social media is the difference between reference, and referral.

google is a reference, and to find accurate info relies on you being able to boil down what you’re looking for to a very small amount of words that hold lots of meaning.

there is no other context – it’s like looking something up in the dictionary. unless you can already succinctly describe what you’re looking for in very few distinctive terms, you won’t find what you need.

social media adds incredibly value context to your search – from your ability to elaborate more (within reason) to being able to disambiguate terms.

even your relationships themselves add infinitely valuable context – your contacts know what you do for a living, the techniques or technologies you use, and might already have experience solving the same problems.

What a fantastic and concise explanation of the difference between the way people interact with conventional web search engines and the way they seek information through online communities like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Today I even had the opportunity to experience this difference first- hand: I used social search to replace my headphones. I first went to Hunch, which did a solid job of pointing me to a suitable pair of headphones. In fact, I ultimately purchased the headphones recommended as the 3rd of 53 possible choices. After getting recommendations from Hunch, I turned to Twitter, where I received a flurry of advice, as well as requests to share what I learned. Given that advice, I turned to a few ecommerce sites to follow up on a few candidates. And ultimately I bought a pair of headphones that will hopefully arrive before my current ones fall apart.

So, is Twitter a search engine after all? I still say no, but it certainly facilitates social search.

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel Lemire // Apr 10, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Any social network operates as a recommender system. That is, quite often, the main purpose of the network.

    Search is only one component of Information Retrieval. Too often, “search” people assume that all there is to IR is searching…

    I am not putting down the value of search, but twitter is definitively a recommender system, and thus, an actual IR tool, of some sort.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Apr 10, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    I suppose it has a lot to do with what you call Twitter. Certainly the software isn’t making recommendations–it’s the people I interact with. I suppose it’s fair to say Twitter as a social network isn’t just software–it is software + the people who use it.

    But is that what people mean when they refer to Twitter as a search engine, recommender system, etc.? In that case, it seems they should be arguing that offline communities are search engines that compete with Google–and I’ve never heard that argument.

  • 3 jeremy // Apr 10, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    There is an additional distinction or clarification that needs to be make here. We really are talking google vs. social search, right? Not non-social search vs. social search? Because Google is but one type of non-social search.. one that has been explicitly and purposely designed to be reference-oriented (aka “known item” search).

    There are other types of search that are not reference oriented, such as exploratory search. Social search is one such type. Exploratory search is another.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Apr 10, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Yes, by “conventional web search engines” I meant Google. Indeed, search can be social, exploratory, both, or neither.

  • 5 jeremy // Apr 10, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    I only point this out, because Mike Susz says, “social media adds incredibly value context to your search – from your ability to elaborate more (within reason) to being able to disambiguate terms.”

    And I wanted to put it in the record that social search isn’t the only way of adding context to your information seeking. Social information is one sort of context. The things that exploratory search systems do is another type of context.

    But context is what we’re really all after, here.

  • 6 Avi Rappoport // Apr 10, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    “unless you can already succinctly describe what you’re looking for in very few distinctive terms, you won’t find what you need.”

    I’m not sure about the distinction here. When web search engines add external anchor text to the description of a page, they’re already widening the vocabulary and using the static social networking of links to improve results. And every time the engines index a Yelp or Consumerist review page, they get user created content. As usual, I think “it depends”.

    Avi

  • 7 Daniel Tunkelang // Apr 11, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Avi, that’s a fair point. There is social data accessible through web search, as well as the implicit social aspect of the links themselves. Indeed, my quest for headphones did use the review data on Amazon and other sites. But, as you note, that social data is static.

    And, as Jeremy noted, Mike does confound two limitations of conventional web search: it not only doesn’t leverage dynamic interaction between people a la social search, but also doesn’t offer the user-machine interaction of exploratory search.

    But I concede that the word “social” is a bit poorly defined. In some sense, everything we do–or at least everything with regard to communicating information–is social. I just feel that’s not a particularly useful sense.

  • 8 jeremy // Apr 11, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I’m not sure about the distinction here. When web search engines add external anchor text to the description of a page, they’re already widening the vocabulary and using the static social networking of links to improve results.

    External anchor text is an orthogonal issue to the problem of having to succinctly describe what you are looking for in very few distinctive terms. Think about it this way: Imagine if you replaced every document on the web with the “anchor enhanced” version of that document, i.e. you added a few paragraphs on to the end of every document with the text from all the inbound anchors.

    Now, every document is has more text associated with it, correct? So it’s more descriptive. But now every other page on the web also has more text associated with it, because every other page on the web has now been enhanced. So at the end of the day there is a higher chance that the words you use to describe your query will be found on the relevant page. At the same time there is now a higher chance that those same words will be found on a lot more non-relevant pages, too.

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