Web giants in silent battle for ‘social search’ supremacy

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This article is part of our special report ICT: Fuelling the economy.

Microsoft and Google are developing web platforms combining the roles of social media and search engines – ‘social search’ – in moves that reveal a raging battle to harness cloud computing and combine the web’s most popular functions.

At a seminar on social media in Brussels on 8 February, Microsoft revealed that it is developing a ‘social search’ tool, called So.cl, currently in use at experimental stage primarily amongst the academic community.

Google Plus, which launched last autumn – and in January allowed users older than 13 years to join – combines the search giant’s usual engines with new social services and has been described as an attempt to rival the social network Facebook.

Both platforms involve users sharing information with each other and have a strong business application, allowing research and business communities to be created on line.

Sharing knowledge is a business matter

In Google’s case, pages can be set up for specific groups enabling business users across borders to create knowledge communities. Microsoft is developing So.cl as a research experiment for students focused on combining web browsing, search and social networking for the purposes of learning.

The two models have sharply different privacy standards. Google Plus uses a model of tight privacy control, aiming to imitate "real life" relationships by enabling users to lock certain friends from information that they make available to others.

Microsoft’s model is for users to forgo privacy, enabling all users in the sharing network to see the full trail of information and stories involved in social search chains. The company says that this has proved popular with students who are happier to use a platform where they "know where they stand" on privacy, rather than worrying about several different types of policy.

Increasing competition in the social search field

Both social search platforms can deal with vast quantities of data through their use of cloud computing, and both are aiming longer term to harness business users. So.cl is targeted at communities of researchers working at a distance, enabling them to pool specialist information. Microsoft is also hoping to capitalise on its relationship with Facebook to drive So.cl forward.

Social search is becoming an area of increasing competition between internet giants. Social platform Twitter complained in January about changes made by Google to integrate Google Plus into its search results.

Google hit back at Twitter, with chief executive Eric Schmidt saying that his company was not favouring its own social network over Facebook and Twitter, and claiming that “all would be treated equally” if the two rivals granted the search giant the right permissions to access their content.

“The unwillingness of Facebook and Google to share a public commons when it comes to the intersection of search and social is corrosive to the connective tissue of our shared culture,” said American search expert John Battelle, adding that “social search would mean little until Facebook and Google settled their differences and offered consumers what they really wanted - Facebook data integrated with Google's search.”

“Microsoft has a tight partnership with Facebook and we see that growing,” group programme manager Paul Steckler at Microsoft’s FUSE Labs, said in Brussels on 8 February. “Ultimately we hope to enable So.cl to be able to use more rich content sources, and enable enterprises to take their data into social search.”

 

Search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing, as well and information sites such as Wikipedia, are some of the most widely used internet tools.

In parallel, social sites such as Facebook and Twitter have also seen an explosion in users.

Cloud computing enables the data processed by such sites to be managed easily, and the holy grail of combining the two most popular online destinations is now well under way.

Sites combining interactivity with groups of users and the sharing of expert knowledge could have benefits for businesses – especially smaller concerns – that want to pool information or team up specialists working on similar issues from a distance.

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