The promise of integrating social elements into search engines to improve people's ability to find information across numerous and disparate repositories, as well as boost collaboration in the enterprise space, mean social search is growing in importance. However, its effectiveness in converting search results to sales among consumers is still murky.
Gavin Tay, research director at Gartner, said the ability to perform search functions in a social manner and the flexibility for results to be customized, mean search engines integrated with social elements are growing in importance within the enterprise space.
It also helps in collaboration efforts within an organization by providing "specialized vocabularies, ontology and workflow" specific to its employees and business processes, Tay added.
His comments come after Microsoft revamped its Bing search engine earlier in May, which was inspired by the software giant's partnership with Facebook. According to ZDNet Asia's sister site CNET, Bing now includes a new column for search results featuring Facebook friends who might have some insight into a particular query. For instance, if someone searches about diving spots in Costa Rica, the social bar would list friends who might have shared photos from a trip to that country.
That said, Tay noted that while social search was a nascent but "potentially powerful new development" in search, providers such as Bing and Google, through its Google+ product, were late entrants to this arena in the wake of Facebook.
He said the difference between traditional search engines offered by Google and Microsoft and social networks such as Facebook is that while the former might tell a user where to learn more about a particular product and where he might purchase it, the latter allow consumers to learn about their friends' experiences with the product.
Social networks also allow users to interact with both professional users via forums and directly with the brand, he noted.
Social recommendations not so important
Andreas Pouros, COO of digital marketing company Greenlight, added that search engine operators should incorporate whatever they believe will improve a user's experience, then test how much or how little of the feature to display based on how users interact with these results.
"A search engine's principal objective is to give the searcher the best possible answer to his query. Sometimes, the best answer is held by the searcher's friends, so using that information and source is a good thing," Pouros pointed out. He added that the degree of prominence such social information offers should be "calibrated just right" to give a good user experience.
Citing an internal global survey, though, he noted that people did not believe recommendations made by their Facebook friends were "that important or useful compared to other information sources".
For instance, people looking to buy electronic devices deemed information sources such as professional online magazines, price-comparison Web sites, reviews sites, and so on, as more important than their online friends' recommendations.
Pouros pointed out: "People simply don't think their Facebook friends are useful when it comes to making recommendations, and search engines must reflect that [with regard to] how much of a user's social network data they display versus all the other sources."
Asked if the latest revamp will help Microsoft claw back market share from search leader Google, the Greenlight COO did not think so because of the abovementioned reason.
He added that other sources consumers seemed to trust more, such as reviews and price-comparison sites, were areas Google excelled in. For example, Google recently incorporated a feature displaying price comparisons for financial products on relevant search results pages, and would continue doing more of these sorts of integrations, he noted.
Both Microsoft and Google declined to comment for this report.