Google Stamps Social Search With Beta Status
Web users with Google profiles will now be able to use a beta version of Social Search, a Google application that recently graduated out of "Labs" status. The utility opens new categories of content when users conduct a search, displaying information and images from users' public pages to those users' contacts. As always, users should be aware of what they're posting and who can access it.
Google promoted its Social Search experiment to beta status on Wednesday.
Social Search adds information and images from users' public pages to the results of online searches conducted by members of their social network.
Users need a Google profile to get results from Social Search.
Circles of Friends and Content
Social has been added to other Google applications like Google Images, so when people with a Google profile conduct a search on images, they may get pictures their friends and other online contacts have published publicly on photo-sharing sites like Picasa Web Albums and Flickr.
Online searches for answers to questions will also pull in public content from friends and contacts on the Web such as blog pages.
Links labeled "My social circle" and "My social content" will appear together with results of online searches. The first lets users check out their social circles; the second lets users see the connections and content behind social search results.
Social Search provides transparency about connections by showing users the other individuals with whom they are connected -- and through which services -- every time query results show information from people in their social circle, Google spokesperson Jake Hubert told TechNewsWorld.
Google is labeling its social search feature a beta version because it expects to expand those capabilities. "We're leaving a 'beta' label on social results because there's a lot more we can do," Social Search project staffers Maureen Heymans and Terran Melconian wrote in the Google blog post announcing the feature's beta release Wednesday.
Getting to Know You
Could this new social dimension impact users' privacy? People tend to have friends with different degrees of closeness, from those with whom we are merely civil to those with whom we share much of our lives. Could social search blur those lines and create unlooked-for intimacy with people we only consider acquaintances or business contacts?
Google's party line boils down to what boxers hear from referees in the ring: Keep your guard up and protect yourself at all times.
"All the content that shows up as part of Social Search is already publicly available through Google.com and other search engines today," Google's Hubert pointed out. "Social Search simply makes it easier to find relevant information from your social circle.
"If you don't want this content to be surfaced as part of Social Search, you can remove it from your Google profile, your other online social services, or from the Internet entirely," Hubert said. "You can always add or remove links on your Google profile, and can also block their Gmail chat contacts or remove contacts from their friends, family and coworker groups in Gmail."
Watch What You Post
However, removing content from the Internet is not as easy as it sounds: Cached pages can last a long time.
That could spur changes in what people post on the Web. "Many people may not fully understand that what they put up on the Internet is indexed and can be found by strangers," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. "Social Search will likely get people to think more about what they put up online."
There may also be increased danger from online predators. "This raises additional risks associated with making folks you don't know digital friends, and both children and the elderly are likely initially to become more exposed," Enderle said.
Google's response: "The most important thing to note about Social Search is that all the content that shows up as part of Social Search is already publicly available through Google.com and other search engines today," Hubert said. "Social Search simply makes it easier to find relevant information from your social circle."
Online predators already exist, Enderle pointed out. While Social Search could make it easier for them at first, it could put more focus on bad practices and lead to safer behavior, he said.
Stronger laws to protect people online may not be far off, and Social Search may help speed up the creation of legal protection, Enderle pointed out.
The Federal Trade Commission is holding a day-long public roundtable Thursday in Berkeley, Calif., exploring the privacy challenges posted by developments in technology. Another such meeting was held in December in Washington, D.C.; a third, also in D.C., is schedule for the future.
"The government is already looking at privacy issues surrounding some of these practices, so Social Search could also force changes in the law which could better protect Internet users," Enderle said.