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This article was published on March 30, 2012

Man vs. Machine: Could Facebook’s people-sourced search beat Google’s algorithm?

Man vs. Machine: Could Facebook’s people-sourced search beat Google’s algorithm?
Drew Olanoff
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Drew Olanoff

Drew Olanoff was The Next Web's West Coast Editor. He coined the phrase "Social Good" and invented the "donation by action" model for onlin Drew Olanoff was The Next Web's West Coast Editor. He coined the phrase "Social Good" and invented the "donation by action" model for online charitable movements. He founded #BlameDrewsCancer. You can follow him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, or email [email protected]

It’s a well-known fact that most people don’t get past page one of Google’s search results. This is why the company is doubling down on integrating a social layer into everything that it does. While algorithms can crawl the entire web to find relevant information, could the things that we share on Facebook become a better and more reliable data-set?

According to a piece by Businessweek, Facebook has a team that is working on making search on the site better than it is right now:

Searching the social network could get a lot better in the near future. About two dozen Facebook engineers, led by a former Google engineer named Lars Rasmussen, are working on an improved search engine, say two people familiar with the project who did not want to be named because the company is in a quiet period ahead of its IPO. The goal, they say, is to help users better sift through the volume of content that members create on the site, such as status updates, and the articles, videos, and other information across the Web that people “like” using Facebook’s omnipresent thumbs-up button.

We know that Facebook and Google have one thing in common, they absolutely love data. The only difference between the companies may soon be the way that the data is shown to us.

Google’s approach to search

As it appears now, even with the launch of Google+, Google scours the web for content and then churns it through an algorithm that decides which content is more relevant. The social layer that it has instituted allows its users to validate what the machines have already decided.

This works really well because people view information differently, and there really is no such thing as natural language search. Even if you’re really good at using Google, it’s hard to find exactly what you’re looking for sometimes. If the Internet was “flat”, meaning it wasn’t indexed at all, relying on people to find the content that might be relevant to you is like pissing in the wind. Basically, the experience is going to suck big time.

On the other hand, when you want to ask people for recommendations, you don’t even know where to start. For example, if you want to eat dinner but aren’t sure what type of food you want, Google doesn’t really help other than to give you a list of sites that have lists of restaurants in your area.

Basically, Google has an extra step if you want recommendations.

Facebook’s (potential) approach to search

By cropdusting the web with “Like” buttons, Facebook has a huge set of data and information curated by all of us, without the fluff that Google scrapes daily. Think of it as a super-fine set of information that has already been pre-screened by humans.

Now if Facebook wanted to “improve” its search, it wouldn’t be as simple as making an algorithm that mimics the experience that we have today on Google.

With lists, subscriptions, likes, and location data, Facebook could let us perform a very direct query with a finite group of people. Basically, a set of our friends or colleagues would be our “search engine”. What would that experience look like? Well, I imagine that you’d type a natural language query and then drill down to whose data you’d like to use to perform the search.

For example, I wanted a taco, I wouldn’t necessarily type taco into an open search box like I would on Google. I’d choose a location or a group of friends and then search for “taco”. Based on where they’ve checked in on foursquare or Facebook, or things that they’ve liked, I could be given results to check out.

It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad either.

Who wins?

First, you have to remember to stop referring to these companies as one “thing” or another. Google isn’t a “search company” and Facebook isn’t a “social network”. They are both companies who want to change the world and make money. We all know that there’s big money in big data. These companies have different approaches to how they’re collecting and displaying the data, but at the end of the day, they’re kind of doing the same thing.

We’re watching a potential clash of the titans where two things are extremely obvious: Google is late to social, and Facebook is late to search. Sure, Facebook has Microsoft in its corner which could help them out a great deal, but as Bing stands, it’s extremely similar to the experience we have on Google today.

The next big step for search is outside of the box completely, with less data and more relevant results. The question is, do you trust regular people like you and I to decide what’s best, or do you prefer to let a bunch of machines try to figure it out for you. The answer is a mix of both, but who will do it better?

At the end of the day, we’re going to use what works best for us. Until Facebook makes a move, it’s still a Google world. However, Mark Zuckerberg and company aren’t going to sit back and watch the stream of data and dollar signs pass them by. It’s going to be an epic battle and it could be anyone’s game.

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