FAQ: What’s The Debate About Google’s Search Plus Your World?


Feeling confused about all you may have heard about Google’s new “Search Plus Your World” search results that came out last week? It’s understandable. Just digesting the new features is tough enough, much less trying to follow all the accusations and counter-accusations that were flying around. Here’s a guide designed to answer questions you might have.

What Is This “Search Plus Your World” Thing?

Search Plus Your World is a big, awkward name that Google gave to a new way of showing its personalized search results. Some people have been shortening the name to SPYW. I’ve been calling it “Search Plus,” myself.

My Google’s Results Get More Personal With “Search Plus Your World” article from last week on our sister-site Search Engine Land explains the system in detail, but I’ll answer more specific questions about it below.

What’s Personalized Search?

Personalized search is where a search engine gives a boost to listings based on things that are specific to an individual. If you got to a particular web site often, or if your friends have all shared a link, those are personal signals that can be used to reward a listing and cause it to rank better.

Signals? Ranking? What’s All That?

Search engines like Google use something called an “algorithm” to figure out what pages to return in the top results. The algorithm is like a recipe; the signals are like ingredients in that recipe. Here’s a three minute video that explains more:

To get a greater sense of all the signals that get measured, see our The Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors that lists some of the most important of them.

Our Personalization & Search Engine Rankings page focuses on just the aspect of personal signals.

So Personalization Is New?

No, Google has had personalized search for a long time, since June 2005, actually. But it expanded these and changed the way they were presented, especially using your own search and web surfing patterns, in February 2007.

Then in December 2009, Google made personalized search the default for everyone. Even if you weren’t logged into Google, it used the past 180 days worth of searches linked to your web browser to personalize your results.

The articles below provide more background of what Google had been doing:

So What’s Different Now?

Search Plus is combining personal signals — your search and web history — along with social signals to create a new form of personalized results. It’s not just who you are that now influences what you see. It’s who you know. What your friends like, share or create can influence what shows up first when you search for something.

Google Didn’t Use Social Signals Or How Social Search Before?

Yes, it did. Google has offered social search since October 2009. The articles below give more background on this:

Until last week, the social search results were compiled separately from the personalized results. You often wouldn’t spot them because all the results — social, personalized and “regular” — were mixed into one single results list.

Everything’s still being mixed, but now one recipe is being used to create personalized results from both personal and social signals. As Google’s Amit Signhal, who oversees search for the company, said last week:

The social search algorithm, and the personal search algorithm, and the personalized search algorithm are actually one algorithm now, and we are merging it in a way that is very pleasant and useful.

What’s This About Private Material Showing Up?

That’s another new part of SPYW. When you search, if you have a Google+ account, it will look through anything that’s been privately shared with you, to see if it matches what you’re looking for. That gets mixed in with web-wide matches.

For example, if someone shared a picture with you of their kitten on Google+ (or Google Picasa), when you search for “kittens,” you might see their kitten picture.

Similarly, if someone wrote a Google+ post about a great car repair place — and only shared that with friends like you — when you search for “car repair,” you might see that post showing up in the top results. Without this type of integration, you wouldn’t get that content appearing.

Is This A Privacy Concern?

It shouldn’t be. Google only shows these personalized results when you’re logged in and using an encrypted or secure connection, so that no one can eavesdrop and discover that private information.

Potentially, because the private information is showing up in front of what seems like a public list, someone might share what they find more broadly. It’s also possible that the integration might give more visibility to privately shared information that people thought was forgotten.

The Google’s Results Get More Personal With “Search Plus Your World” article explains more about this. But in either case, it remains true that Google’s not sharing anything that wasn’t already being shared before.

This Is Why Google Stopped Providing Referrer Info?

It’s why Google says that this information is being withheld. That argument is pretty weak. Encrypting search results is completely separate from deliberately passing along referrer information only to your paid advertisers. These articles look at this issue in more detail:

Will My Facebook Posts Be Searchable This Way?

Google has no way to see what you shared privately with anyone on Facebook. It doesn’t have access to that data. In fact, it doesn’t appear that Google even has access to public posts on personal pages from Facebook.

Google can see posts made to Facebook fan pages, however, along with other information such as personal profile pages on Facebook. So some Facebook information may appear.

Will My Twitter Posts Be Searchable This Way?

Private posts can’t be seen by Google. But many public Twitter posts will turn up in your search results. Not all of them, because Google simply can’t crawl all the content that Twitter has without causing disruptions to Twitter itself.

That’s why Twitter offers what’s called a “firehose” stream of data to search engines, so they can get everything in an efficient manner.

Why Doesn’t Google Get The Twitter Firehose?

Google did until last year. The company cut a deal with Twitter for firehose access and was using it to power Google Realtime Search. But the companies couldn’t agree on terms to renew, so the deal ended in the middle of last year. Here’s more about that:

Doesn’t Facebook Block Google, Too?

Facebook only lets Google access some of its information. It provides much more to Bing. The companies have argued over who is at fault, and here’s more background on that:

More details have recently come to light that part of the reason behind the collapse of a potential Facebook-Google deal was disagreement over how to handle public versus private data. John Battelle has a good blog post with more about this.

Why’s Twitter Crying About Google Favoritism, If It Won’t Give Up The Firehose?

Part of Search Plus was a new feature where if you search for generic words, Google will suggest people you should follow on Google+ but not on Twitter or Facebook. For example, here’s a search for music:

See how Britney Spears and Snoop Dogg show up as recommendations? That only happens because they’re on Google+, so it’s a way that Google might convince celebrities who are already happy with other social networks to use Google+, as well.

Indeed, Lady Gaga just joined Google+ after ignoring Google+ until now. She’s one of the most popular people on both Twitter and Facebook.

Is This Really Google Favoring Itself?

Google’s in a middle of an anti-trust review by the US Federal Trade Commission to determine if it favors itself with its search results.

Personally, I’ve felt most of those arguments don’t hold merit, as they revolve around vertical search results, which are an extension of Google’s (or any search engine’s) search mission. These articles explain more about that:

But Google+ is different. With Google+, Google’s not giving preferred placement to vertical search results that ultimately lead out to others. Instead, it’s favoring its own Google+ service, showing “results” that only come from Google+. If you’re a business, this is a huge incentive to make use of Google+.

That’s a massive departure, in my view, with how Google has operated in the past. My articles below explain more about this:

Maybe If Twitter & Facebook Didn’t Block Google, They’d Be Favored, Too!

Google has plenty of public information to provide a “Pages & People To Follow” search engine that would recommend interesting social accounts from Google+ and beyond. For example, consider this:

That’s Britney’s official Google+ profile, where she links to her Twitter and Facebook accounts. Since this is a verified page, it’s easy for Google to completely trust that these are her other social accounts. That data could be used to create a comprehensive social directory. But it hasn’t been used.

So What? It’s Google’s Search Engine — It Can Do Whatever It Wants!

Actually, it can’t. If Google is deemed to have a dominant position in search — something that its own executive chairman Eric Schmidt agreed it had when testifying in a US Senate hearing last year — then Google might be required to go above-and-beyond to ensure it’s not using that position to favor itself unfairly over competitors.

In my view, the inclusion of Google+ recommendations is one of the most blatant examples of that type of Google favoritism that I’ve ever seen.

Aside from the legal issue, it’s not what Google — which prides itself on relevancy — should be doing. When you search for “Facebook” on Google, Google currently recommends off to the right that you follow the Google+ account of Mark Zuckerberg — where he has never posted.

That’s not relevant. That’s just an embarrassing Google search failure.

For more about this, see my past posts below:

If Someone Doesn’t Like It, They Can Turn It Off

Personalized results can be disabled on a one-time basis using a special toggle or permanently. Both methods are covered in my Google’s Results Get More Personal With “Search Plus Your World” article.

However, the Google+ recommendations can not be disabled. In fact, they show up for Google searches even if you’re completely logged out of Google, and even if you don’t have a Google+ account.

I Hate This — I’m Going To Use Bing!

You hate personalization, you mean? Bing has it, too. Just like Google, it’s on by default, using both Facebook information and your personal search history. These articles have more about that:

Both Google & Bing Are Wrong For Personalizing Results!

Some people are certainly complaining about Google’s personalization messing up their results, such as John Battelle or Mat Honan at Gizmodo. However, both are also people who create content that is actively shared through social networks like Google+. That potentially pollutes their own results.

For more normal people, the impacts might be less dramatic. In some cases, personalization may be indeed helpful. As I explained, Google’s had it for years with relatively few complaining. Google’s actually made it easier to turn it off than in the past.

It’s always tricky assessing whether a search engine is more or less relevant based on a few anecdotal reports. It becomes even harder when everyone is seeing their own unique set of results. We simply don’t know if this change has made Google better or worse overall.

What If My Friends Spam Me & Ruin My Results?

They could. The answer here from Google seems to be similar to what Facebook has said on this topic. You’ll probably stop being friends with them.

I Heard Even Hitler Hates Search Plus

Yes, the “Hitler Hates…” video meme has even come to SPYW. If you don’t like foul language, skip this video! But if you don’t mind, it was pretty funny plus educations with some spot-on observations:

But As A Marketer, Do I Care?

Damn right you do. Want to be in the top results for cars? Look here:

See how Ferrari and BMW have prime real estate at the top of the search results page? That’s because they have Google+ business pages. If you don’t have a page, you don’t get to appear. It makes being on Google+ extremely compelling for businesses.

Of course, there are potential drawbacks. Consider this search for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg:

See how by typing her name into the search box, a suggestion appears with a picture and a link to her Google+ page? That might prompt people to select that over a more general search, generating listings heavy on Google+ matches.

If you have a company executive you handle marketing for, you might prefer people not be routed to their Google+ profile — which potentially means not having a Google+ profile for them at all.

Beyond this, Google+ information is being integrated into Google’s search results in many other ways, as the stories below cover:

Don’t forget, signals of what people like on Google+ influence what they see. Both the articles below cover that:

About The Author

Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, MarTech Today and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here