The Implications of "Search+"

Yesterday, Google announced a new initiative, "Search plus Your World," in which personal results (via Google+) are prioritized in your searches by default. The proposed shift has sent shockwaves across the Internet, with Twitter quickly expressing "concern" over the initiative's far-reaching implications.

Google has long been the subject of scrutiny for its monopolistic tendencies, but, as M.G. Siegler rightly points out, most attempts have not held water. With Search+, however, Google may have overstepped its boundaries. Siegler writes:

But when they use that natural monopoly to start pushing into other verticals, things get gray. Travel, restaurant reviews, etc, etc. We see more of it each year. 

But this, at first glance, seems decidedly worse. Google is using Search to propel their social network. They might say it’s “not a social network, it’s a part of Google”, but no one is going to buy that. They were late to the game in social and this is the best catchup strategy ever. 

I fully comprehend the importance of Google promoting its nascent social network, but intruding upon other services is becoming increasingly dangerous. Gmail and Google Reader, my primary Google services, have already been adversely affected. Search has been steadily moving in this direction too and my response has been to ignorantly put my fingers in my ears hoping any changes might cease to progress.

Unfortunately, Google has taken my worries and amplified them rather significantly. 

From my perspective, the problem is such that when I Google particular queries (e.g., "Jawbone UP"), I now see my articles from The Loop and ONE37 near the top of my search results. People that are connected with me via Google services will have similar results. Those disconnected from my online presence will, in all likelihood, see far different results. I have essentially been forced into socialized responses in a vessel that should -- for the sake of the integrity of its results -- sandbox and limit its sociability. Google placing social results at the forefront of search queries is like Wikipedia implementing a Twitter feed on each page showing what users are saying a certain topic means. It's unnecessary, distracting, and, most importantly, dangerous.

The integration of Google+ so deeply into search has the potential to cast results deeply askew and that is certainly not what Google should be doing with its flagship product. Meddling with its primary function is something Google has been admirably adept at avoiding over the past decade, but such user-benefiting behavior is evidently falling apart.

With regard to Google+, I'm barely active, thus discounting any potential relevance of these socialized results. Granted, this is Google's attempt at encouraging my interaction, but I can only foresee it fostering precisely the opposite reaction. Before Search+, my lack of activity posed a fairly minimal impact on my Google experience. With Search+, on the other hand, my search queries are set to retrieve irrelevant results. Fantastic.

Google is evidently keen to extend the reach of Google+, but its motives are becoming increasingly (and negatively) transparent. Although its somewhat cliché to draw the comparison, Google's maneuvers are becoming remarkably reminiscent of Facebook's propensity for overstepping its bounds.

With each update to its infrastructure, Facebook runs the inevitable (and often fruitless) gauntlet of threats for mass abandonment of its service. In December, The New York Times even ran an article suggesting that the avoidance of Facebook is becomingly increasingly stylish. The prospect of Facebook's slowing growth and increasingly realistic threats of abandonment, in turn, prompted me to write a piece concerning Facebook's refocus on building, what I referred to as, a "social playpen."

As of yesterday, my "playpen" argument now applies to Google, but the implications are significantly worse.

Facebook's desire to keep users active on its site is contained to Facebook.com, whereas Google's desire to broaden the reach of Google+ intrudes upon some of the most popular and widely used web services available. If you use Google products, you are accordingly ushered into this environment. Yes, there is an "off switch," but in selecting it, you are not truly turning the service off, you're just temporarily hiding yourself from those results. Your social results don't go away, they are simply folded away for one session (unless fixed in your personal settings). From Google's announcement:

This toggle button works for an individual search session, but you can also make this the default in your Search Settings.

If there has ever been an opportunity for Google's competitors to prove their viability, it's now. The existence of Google+ has become an uncomfortable intrusion into the productivity workflows of many, and I cannot help but think such actions are not only legally dangerous, but also threatening to the usability of Google as a whole. Intruding upon Google Search -- an area traditionally somewhat preserved from other Google initiatives -- does not bode well whatsoever for all other Google services. Chrome is a depressingly logical target. Rather than a fast browser, it now just feels like a victim in waiting.

As a result, is it really too long before we see articles cropping up touting the popularity of ditching Google? As difficult, impractical, and unrealistic as that might sound, I cannot think of another means for preserving the integrity and relevance of many interactions with the Internet.

Google's actions have graduated from bothersome to dangerous and I, for one, am concerned.