The fabulous collision between social networks and search engines is the most important change to the Internet in the last ten years. And it’s changing the Internet forever.

Before the rise of social networks search engines like Google sent their robotic spiders around the Web and indexed Website content. That content was then ranked against keywords, and when we typed a search term in, like “grilled chicken marinade,” Google displayed, in order of importance, links to content that most likely would satisfy my query.

Then a few hundred million of us began creating social messages in Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Yammer, Yelp, Yahoo chat, and on and on. Often our messages referred to content on the Web, by name and sometimes by linking. In fact some sites like Digg and Delicious explicitly ranked Web content, crowdsourcing the function of the Google spiders.

Now when you type “grilled chicken marinade” into Google or Bing or Yahoo you get results that have been influenced by this growth of new social content that the search engines consider when ranking results on SERPs---search engine result pages—as they’re called.

The search engines are taking notice and trying all sorts of things to deal with social content. Google started Google Social, which adds tweets or other social comments from people it knows are in your social networks—your social graph. Bing did Google one better by signing a deal with the closed world of Facebook to bring your (proprietary) Facebook social graph into search results and mining the 500 billion Facebook accounts as part of its spidering, in order to evaluate links to Web content.
So now there are three different ways social networks are re-mixing the way we search the Internet:

  1. SOCIAL CONTENT EVALUATION – As described in the example above, social content is evaluated as part of all content a search engine considers in returning results to your query. If a lot of people on Twitter like Bill Bob Thornton’s grilled chicken marinade, the link to his Website will move up in the SERPs. There’s also what I’ll call the “Doubler Effect,” of people linking to social media posts with a good link in it, exponentially improving the power of the link.
  2. SOCIAL CONTENT RESULTS—Social content is posted by people in everything from Twitter to Yelp to forums. If I can’t get the Bluetooth software in my HP printer working with my Wifi router, I’ll query Google and Google will give me several postings in various sites with user-generated content, including UGC from social networks. Then there’s “browsing search,” that doesn’t even use a search function—it’s just the stuff we peruse and wander into in social content. It’s like when I get onto Twitter just to see what’s happening, and browse through various links I find.
  3. SOCIAL NETWORK SEARCH—Instead of going to Google, I type “grilled chicken marinade” into Twitter search or Facebook search and follow those results. Here Twitter and Facebook are just competitive search engines to Google and Bing.  (BTW, the Twitter search returned six recipies for chicken marinade) Foursquare and Gowalla want to own the location-based search engine business. If you’re willing to give Google your social network log ins, they will push results from your social graph into your SERPs for you.

This introduction of explicitly human-created social content has had a tremendous effect on how we search and how companies like Google steer their business. Algorithms and spiders have to evolve quickly about how they consider social content. But fundamentally this core functionality of search engines, this robotic machine-based consideration of content, can’t be replaced or even supplanted from its primary role.

We human beings don’t do as good and consistent a job of evaluating content as spiders can. Spiders are merciless, they evaluate whatever they’re pointed at and encounter. The scale and thoroughness with which they consider content cannot be approached by mere mortals. The gaps in social content are many and massive. And we human beings can mighty stupid. We get interested or enthusiastic or sarcastic about some things just because other human beings are interested, enthusiastic or sarcastic. Example number one, for right now: Charlie Sheen. Google’s notion of the importance of this “absolute disaster,” places him somewhere below the tragedy in Japan. Not so on Twitter, alas.

And there are “memes,” which are social information trends that grow and usually fade away as we lose interest. Remember “Wolfram Alpha,” the search engine that was supposed to usurp Google a few years ago? (If you can’t, don’t feel bad) During March through May 2009 it was all the rage among people working on the Internet or interested in it. Today Alexa ranks the Wolfram Alpha site 3,130 worldwide. Google is number 1.

So content and links we humans create to share socially is massively re-arranging the landscape of content considered when we use any search function, from typing into Google to following a friend’s link on our Facebook feed.

And you can bet that as I write, evil people in the Ukraine who run “black hat” link farms are trying to figure out how to exploit social content for profit.