by Michael O'Neill
January 29th, 2013

What is social search?

It’s when you enter a search term in a search engine and it delivers not just search results, but the opinions, commentary and actions of your family, friends and co-workers.

So, for example, if I decide to go to a movie a social search would provide not only the movie listings, but information from my friends about the cinema itself. I could find out who checked in there on Foursquare. I could discover their opinions on the movies playing at the cinema to give me sense of what movie I’ll end up choosing to see.

I could also read any negative or positive reviews on the cinema. Did my brother have a lousy experience there last time he went? Did one of my neighbors rave about the buttered popcorn? Will I be pointed to a secret parking spot if the theater is crowded?

As you can see social search can be a valuable tool. Who doesn’t want customised, localised results from our associates on searches about restaurants, movies, books, recipes, gadgets and vacation spots? That’s what’s called “win-win.”

But there is a dark side to social search.

What happens when we search for information about a disease? Or for a divorce lawyer? Or for pornography? Or one of those guilty pleasures that we don’t want other people to know about?

Will we see that our Uncle Bill has been cruising a website called ‘Skateboard Nymphs’? Or that your boss spends an awful lot of time at a Dungeons & Dragons chat room discussing the art of water-based wizard spells? Or that your best friend has been reading a lot of medical articles about breast cancer?

And do you want your own private searches being served up to your friends? Do you want all of your commentary — some of which is written on the fly — to be saved, archived and then presented to your social graph when they search for information?

Is social search really just the next big violation of our privacy?

Let me give you a quick example. I read the Huffington Post and have signed in with Facebook. Every time I visit the site I’m served up information on what my Facebook friends have been reading on the Huffington Post. The site tells me what articles they have read. Sometimes I’m mildly surprised at what they have been perusing.

But it also affects my own selection of stories.

For example, last week and I saw a story about Michael J. Fox not wanting Taylor Swift to date his son. I went to click on it and then didn’t. Why? Because it’s a trivial Hollywood gossip story and I didn’t want the fact that I’d read it being served up to my friends.Then I noticed that one of my colleagues had already read it. I was embarrassed for him.

So will social search change our own behavior on the web? Will we be constantly wondering about who is watching and how every search can (and will) be used against us?

What do you think about social search? Valuable tool or another invasion of our privacy?

George F. Snell III is senior vice-president, digital & social communications, at Weber Shandwick Boston. This article first appeared on his blog High Talk

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