Some of the most successful web sites today are social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. These are not only popular web sites; they are also remarkably effective people search tools. For example, I can use LinkedIn to find the 163 people in my network who mention “information retrieval” in their profiles and live within 50 miles of my ZIP code (I can’t promise you’ll see the same results!).
A couple of observations about social networking sites (I’ll focus on LinkedIn) are in order.
First, this functionality is a very big deal, and it’s something Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have not managed to provide, even though their own technology is largely built on a social network–citation ranking.
Second, the “secret sauce” for sites like LinkedIn is hardly their technology (a search engine built on Lucene and a good implementation of breadth-first search), but rather the way they have incented users to be active participants, in everything from virally marketing the site to their peers to inputting high-quality semi-structured profiles that make the site useful. In other words, active users ensure both the quantity and quality of information on the site.
Many people have noted the network effect that drove the run-away success of Microsoft Office and eBay. But I think that social networking sites are taking this idea further, because users not only flock to the crowds, but become personally invested not only in the success of the site generally, but especially in the quality and accuracy of their personal information.
Enterprises need to learn from these consumer-oriented success stories. Some have already. For example, a couple of years ago, IBM established a Professional Marketplace, powered by Endeca, to maintain a skills and availability inventory of IBM employees. This effort was a run-away success, saving IBM $500M in its first year. But there’s more: IBM employees have reacted to the success of the system by being more active in maintaining their own profiles. I spent the day with folks at the ACM, and their seeing great uptake in their author profile pages.
I’ve argued before that there’s no free lunch when it comes to enterprise search and information access. The good news, however, is that, if you create the right incentives, you can get other folks to happily pay for lunch.