First squares, now circles


A while ago, Google introduced Google Squared, an attempt to help people keep track of different aspects in their search results. I think that it’s an interesting HCIR idea that still lacks a good implementation, as I’ve written here and here. Recently, Google introduced a means of adding results informed by the searcher’s social network, which Google has dubbed “Social Circle.” I spent some time playing with it, and found it lacking.

My ad hoc evaluation consisted of typing in a few queries and exploring the results. In addition to the normal set of “organic” results, Google inserts a heading titled “Results from people in your social circle for …”. Clicking on this link opens the “social” results. For the query “collaborative search” it identified a couple of blog posts on the FXPAL blog and on Jeremy Pickens‘ personal blog. Not particularly useful, given that I already knew about these blogs. Pretty much the same results were obtained for the query “exploratory search”, and “information seeking.” The query “visualization techniques” produced just a couple of hits on the FXPAL blog.

The Google site describes the Social Circle as

… a combination of your Gmail chat buddies, your Gmail contacts friends, family and co-worker groups, and people you’re publicly connected to on other social sites (such as Twitter and FriendFeed).

So why is it only returning results from my own blog and from Jeremy’s? Why not from TheNoisyChannel, which is certainly in my social circle? Why doesn’t find Brynn Evans‘ blog, and Ed Chi‘s blog which also deals with some of the same issues? And what about all the tweets related to these topics? Well, it turns out that I have to configure my Google profile to define my social circle. I suppose it should have been obvious, but they could also have done a better job of explaining what needs to happen for this feature to work.

I added a bunch of blogs I follow to Google Reader, added my Twitter URL to the list of URLs, and accepted the suggestion to include my home page. Yet the search results remain unchanged: two hits on the FXPAL blog, and two on IRGupf.

So my initial impressions (using cognitive dimensions terminology) of Google’s social circle are

  • Poor visibility: it is hard to figure out what you need to do to configure the system to produce meaningful results.
  • Lots of hidden dependencies: the system is not transparent in how it uses information in the profile, or whether it is in fact using anything at all.
  • Poor role-expressiveness: Rather than setting the social circle results out in a side bar or some other prominent place, Google chose to inject a link to a separate page. At first, I didn’t even understand that I had to click on it: I thought that the results below that heading were the social circle results.
  • High viscosity: I cannot see the social results along side the “organic” results, forcing me to switch back and forth.

I hope that in the coming weeks, Google addresses these deficiencies to make it possible to use the tool for real to discover information that is otherwise hard to find. Unfortunately, Google’s track record with HCIR interfaces isn’t great: so far, the Wonder Wheel, Google Squared, and the search wiki have all failed to provide truly useful support for exploratory search. It’s not clear whether this lack of success can be explained by a lack of resources, of imagination, or due to inappropriate evaluation metrics.


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  2. Indeed, the problem is that Google’s social search interface is, like the web search interface it refines, too focused on showing a page of results, rather than on offering a gateway to user-controlled exploration. My overall reaction is similar to yours–that a little HCIR would go a long way.

  3. As I see more and more of these little tools from Google, it strikes me that they do a singularly bad job of making it easy to give them feedback. Yeah, they can probably get something out of the log, but a few user comments might go a long from conjecture about to explanation of usability problems.

  4. […] Golovchinsky expresses his opinion on the FXPAL […]

  5. I had the same issue when I tried out Google’s new Social Search feature this week — it seems to never show me results from my friends, even though I know they exist, and I suspect it is because I have not “properly” configured my friend list to Google’s liking, but I have no idea how to actually do that…

  6. I would love for this to work like LinkedIn’s searches do, where it shows me results somewhere in my social network (as opposed the entire collection). I should be able to set a parameter on my search to show results from my friends, from friends of friends, and maybe one more level out. As things stand, however, not only is something is broken in the way they try to infer the social network, but the user doesn’t have much control over the scope of the search.

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