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eSchool News' Dennis Pierce penned a post this week about social search, expressing concern about the ways in which search algorithms will impact learners. His article draws heavily on the work of Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble. The problem, according to Pariser, Pierce, and others, is that what we see online -- specifically our search results -- are now being influenced by those with whom we're connected via social networks, effectively limiting rather than opening inquiry.

As Pierce explains it: "If my online circle of friends and connections includes MoveOn.org and the Democratic National Committee, I'm likely to see a story about the national debt from a source like the liberal-leaning Huffington Post at the top of my search results. If you've made an online contribution to the NRA, the same search query might serve up a series of Fox News stories for you."

While that may be the case for Facebook -- that's the example Pariser used in his TED Talk, at least -- it's not yet been how Google works, says Google's Matt Cutts. Cutts notes that it is possible to search Google without personalization (by adding "&pws=0" to the end of a search URL or by using the "incognito" version of Chrome, for example). "Personalization tends to be a nice relevance improvement overall," says Cutts, "but it doesn't trigger that much--when it launched, the impact was on the order of one search result above the fold for one in five search results." Localization, Cutts notes -- which takes things like your IP address into account when determining search results -- has far more of an impact on the results you see.

That being said, there's no doubt that Google is working on social search. As GigaOm's Mathew Ingram recently argued, "Google has to figure out how to capitalize on those kinds of [social] signals, in order to maintain its dominant position between Internet users and the information they want." Currently, social search on Google gives you an indication when a particular search result has been shared, Tweeted, or +1'd by those in your social circles. This doesn't necessarily make these items the top results; but these are the sorts of signals that Google (and others) want to include -- because "filter bubble" or not -- we are influenced by our friends and colleagues.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing.

In the eSchool News article, education consultant Angela Meiers says that the rise of social search should prompt teachers and students alike to build broad but trusted networks online, so as to help offset any filter bubble and to help return better search results. And while that's good advice to be sure, it will be interesting to see how social search will (and won't) work when it comes to shared computers in places like schools and libraries. Most people don't "log in" on these terminals, and as such, they won't have access to the benefits (and yes, there are benefits) of personalized search results.

That's an interesting obstacle to the future of search that Pierce doesn't really address, and it's one we'll have to weigh, I think, particularly as search becomes more social. There are already a number of things we need to teach students about search (including, of course, how to assess the information they find online and not confuse SEO with accuracy). Add to that list now teaching students to analyze all the influences on their search results (Did you know, for example, that at the bottom of a results page you can "view customizations" to see why Google delivered certain results to you?).

Educators may not need a reminder of this, but it's worth repeating: "search" is still the most popular online activity. The latest study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project just reaffirmed this. 92% of online adults surveyed say they use search engines, and 59% say they do on a daily basis. Search is also most popular among the youngest adult internet users (those age 18-29), 96% of whom use search engines to find information online. Take that, social networks! But realize, of course, that that social component will no doubt impact search more and more.

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Audrey Watters


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