Dave McClure moderated an event on Search & The Social Graph at the Yahoo! campus this week, organized by the Search SIG of the Software Development Forum. With the meteoric rise of Facebook and the heightened interest in leveraging the social graph - both Google and Yahoo! have launched new APIs and OpenSocial is gaining momentum - this discussion was timely and attendance was strong.
The panelists represented some of the most interesting players in this space:
- Kevin Marks from Google
- Aditya Agarwal from Facebook
- Kent Brewster of Yahoo!
- Eve Phillips, CEO of Chirp
It turned out to be an interesting event, with lots of good discussion about the implications of portability, privacy, utility and monetization of social data. No stranger to the social data space, moderator McClure did an outstanding job of keeping things focused and the discussion lively; he was clearly knowledgeable and well-prepared, launching into a series of leading questions that moved the conversation forward.
By grouping together related comments, I've distilled the discussion at this event into the following topics:
1. Relevance of Search Results
- With the explosion of self-publishing and user-generated content on
the web, the type of data getting created on the web is changing, and
the classic search algorithms are becoming less effective.
- Users are increasingly interested in what their friends and peers are doing online.
- By using a social graph to filter out results during a specific search, you can boost the relevance of search results.
- It is no longer uncommon for a person to become a media source, using
tools such as twitter, blogs and RSS feeds; but this is hard to
monetize. A referral model works better in this case than advertising.
- Brand advertising is still big, even for social search, but it works differently than for targeted search
- Online brand advertising will move into more interactive experiences in the future
- The key question is: Does membership in a social group signal an intention that can be targeted by advertisers? The panelists felt that, on balance, it did Not
- For a more concrete example: Google's directed search is very monetizable; Facebook has a lot of social data, but user behavior is not very monetizable
- There is a clear difference between a publicly-proclaimed graph, such
as the friends on Facebook, and a private list, such as Email contacts;
application developers will ignore this distinction at their peril
- Yahoo!'s Brewster said it best: "There should never be a privacy surprise for the user!"
- Applications should make it clear to users if they are making data public or private; e.g. Flickr is three-valued in this regard
4. Interaction Levels
- From a monetization perspective, all "friends" are not created equal; some connections in the social graph are stronger than others
- The smallest inner set of friends is the most valuable; the first 25 people have 80% of the value
- The viral rate of promotion in Facebook is incredible
- If users can annotate connections, they can more fully express their network graph
- You can infer relationships from user behavior, such as sites visited and click-throughs
- The most important part of social data is the connections, followed by the profile; eventually, it gives you the ability to answer the question: "Who should you go to, to answer this question?"
- OpenSocial allows application developers to write one application,
and then take it to where the users are on diverse other social networks
- The vision: take some of the good parts of Facebook and bring those to a lot of people
- This allows any application to spread through the social graph
6. Social Email
- Email networks have a lot of connection data, which has social data buried in it
- These connections can either be one-way or two-way; the difference signals intent on the part of the user
- Google's Marks made an interesting point: a person's email address and personal URL are opposites - with the former, you can communicate with that that person; with the latter, the person communicates with you
Facebook's Agarwal did a great job of articulating the company's approach to some of these issues. His contributions to the discussion were somewhat Facebook-centric; but given the strong community interest in Facebook lately, this only added to the value of the panel.
In discussing the value of social data for search, Agarwal compared the issues of selecting for relevance among a large number of results for a targeted search, with those of producing Facebook's news feed, which must also present a large amount of data to the user in a format that's easy to consume.
In terms of privacy, Facebook wants to allow users to annotate the social graph, so that they can fully express their network. This will allow users to separate their strong connections from casual friends. The size of a user's graph is another dimension to be considered.
For data portability, Facebook currently doesn't have any plans to implement enabling features focusing on it. Agarwal clarified that although philosophically they support data portability initiatives, they have not determined it to be the best use of resources at this time.
Finally, although Agarwal did not acknowledge this directly, the panelists agreed that the Facebook-type social network data and searches are far less monetizable than directly targeted activities that display clear intent, such as a Google search.
This was the first time I saw a demo of Chirp . Eve Phillips, Chirp's CEO, gave a demo of chirpscreen, an interactive screen saver that displays content from your social network, such as pictures from Flickr and status messages from Facebook. On the whole, the audience loved it - a series of photos of her friends kept popping up on the screen - but there were some concerns about being able to control what gets shown. According to Phillips, Chirp is planning to introduce new features soon that will allow users to set preferences of what content is displayed, from which sources, and so on.
McClure asked some incisive questions to the panelists, which deserve to be listed in their own right; I hope these lead to a wider discussion about social data and related topics:
- Is Social Search - revolutionary, or evolutionary?
- Which benefits more from social data: targeted search or discovery?
- How well does social search monetize?
- How should we use the social data that's automatically present in Email?
- If Facebook and other networks encourage lightweight friendships, does it obscure the real social graph?