Forget Google, social search is all about mobile

New research from Aardvark shows higher social search use on the mobile side

There’s considerable chatter about a seismic shift in search. A lot of it’s overblown, but the central idea is intriguing: Google’s biggest problem — the one that keeps company execs up at night — isn’t Bing or Ask or traditional search. The real threat is social search.

Or so the thinking goes …

O'Reilly Where 2010 ConferenceI’ve always dismissed the notion that Twitter or Facebook could knock Google from its throne. Those services are built for speed, not depth. And even though Google is a huge organization, it still has the agility and forward-thinking to fend off attackers.

Earlier today, I ran across a data point in Aardvark’s new social search report that I find way more interesting than Google’s theoretical downfall. It’s not whether social search will displace Google. It’s how — and where — social search can actually be useful

TechCrunch’s breakdown of the Aardvark report includes this bit of analysis:

[Aardvark’s] average query volume was 3,167.2 questions per day, with the median active user asking 3.1 questions per month. Interestingly, mobile users are more active than desktop users. The Aardvark team attributes this to users wanting quick, short answers on their phones without having to dig for anything. They also think people are more used to using more natural language patterns on their phones. [Emphasis added.]

The real seismic shift in social search will come from its commingling with mobile applications.

Why? Because mobile is a different animal than the desktop. No one wants to fumble around for queries. People on the go don’t have time to scan listings. The screens are too small, and the input mechanisms — improved as they are — are way too clunky.

Mobile search has to be concise and targeted. Results that emanate from a trusted network of friends and associates certainly fit that bill. Toss in more geolocation features and improved speech recognition, and the utility of mobile-based social search could get really interesting.

Update 2/11/10: TechCrunch says Google has acquired Aardvark. I can see the Aardvark functionality mixing with the mobile “Nearby” tool in Google Buzz.

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  • Matt

    Have you actually used Google on an Android phone? I can’t speak for other mobile platforms, but google on the Droid is absolutely fantastic. I’ve used it quite a bit, it’s really pretty easy to use. I’m not getting where you’re coming from in this article.

    For example, say I want to find a restaurant. I’ve got three options. Eitheruse the built in search button, fire up google maps, or use the voice recognition search. These are available through 2 button clicks, no matter what you are doing on the phone. The “dreaded” listings pop up with starred reviews automatically, and distances to these restauarants. Additionally, with one click, I can get directions to the location.

    This article comes across as a forced hype of social search with minimal research. Seriously, it’s making me considered dropping this rss feed. Add more content, and try to sound less like a press release.

  • Matt

    I forgot to mention, Android already has those lovely features included, and they work quite well.

    I know I come off as a Google defender, but it’s just because this article doesn’t seem to have much solid ground.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Matt: I think Google does a fine job with its mobile offerings. I have a Droid and the search integration is very strong, particularly the speech recognition. I really have no issue with Google on mobile devices.

    And believe me, I’m not a social search evangelist. Social search in desktop/laptop environments is really just another tool for finding things. It offers a different experience than Google. Not better. Not worse. Just different.

    What I was trying to get at in this piece — and perhaps I didn’t drive this point home well enough — is that the either/or, social search vs. Google search stuff isn’t as intriguing as *how social search can be best used*. And I think that’s on the mobile side.

    I’m not suggesting mobile search should replace Google on mobile devices. I just thing the application of mobile-based social search could yield interesting results. Much more so than in the desktop/laptop realm.

  • David

    As a user and contributor to Aardvark, kgb_, and ChaCha, I can only say that Google has nothing to worry about unless there is a substantial improvement in how “social search” works. There are three critical headwinds to this technology.

    First is the response time, it could take 20-30sec to get an answer but its often much, much, longer. If I am trying to settle an argument with a friend over some odd sports trivia 5-6min is fine I suppose. But if I am meeting with clients pondering a lunch destination I want something much quicker.

    The second issue is scalability, or lack thereof, all of the social search tools Aardvark, kgb_, and ChaCha rely on people, in Aardvark’s case unpaid volunteers. This model is like a Ponzi scheme it works as long as you are drawing in new blood that last long enough before they get fed up with the constant interruptions with questions. ChaCha and kgb_ are having their own problems scaling, with “pay” rates that average 1/4 of the minimum wage it makes it difficult to attract a consistent workforce of quality responders.

    The third and most difficult issue is that they rely on humans for answers that the end user expects will be accurate. You can argue that Google turns up nutty results but you the user can view the source and make an informed quality decision, when consulting social search how do you know that your math question was answered by a MIT Mathematics PhD, or Billy the high school dropout who is challenged by the concept of division?

    The paid/paying model (kgb_) has the best chance of success because the cost places a cap on question volume and those answering questions are paid something for the effort. I think Aardvark’s own volume data (3,100 searches per day vs. ChaCha which is hitting 100k per day) demonstrates their model is nothing more than a novelty.

  • Mac Slocum

    @David: I’ve always wondered about the inner-workings of KGB and its ilk. Thanks for the insight.

    As you note, the “direct answer” model appears to have a built-in block. That makes me think something like Foursquare — where the data hangs around — might have a better shot at long-term success.

    And of course there’s always Twitter and Facebook, where a shot in the dark coupled with a strategically placed hashtag could yield a direct result, minus the payment and the scale issues.

  • Lee

    Certainly don’t get your arguments against Google search on the phone, or your subsequent dichotomy of mobile search and Google (Google on your phone is mobile search): “no one wants to fumble around for queries. People on the go don’t have time to scan listings. The screens are too small, and the input mechanisms — improved as they are — are way too clunky.”

    “Fumble around for queries”? I would think it’s easier to type in a Google search (who fumbles with those) than it is typing in a full sentence questions (if only it takes longer). The rest of the points relate to anything being done on a mobile device, and so are irrelevant.

    @David: interesting point about the Ponzi scheme, and I think you may be right. The real killer use case for social search, as I see it right now, is within the enterprise, where user attrition may be less of an issue as answering questions may be part of your job.

    The real seismic shift then, is how social search will transform the enterprise unlike anything within the E2.0 has done to date.

  • Stephen

    ChaCha does more like 1M searches a day, not 100k. Which dwarfs Aardvark and KGB too.

    Mobile IS where the action is with social search. But you’re fooling yourself if you focus only on smartphones, which are still a small fraction of the market even tho they grab most of the press.

    Surprising stat i saw recently (think it was Nielsen data) that said ChaCha actually did more SMS traffic than Google. So I think the long tail of mobile search is pretty long, and the social guys all have entertaining services — even if they’re not the go to for must-get-it-right-on-penalty-of-death info.

  • Susan

    Chacha is doomed to fail. I have two concerns, the first of which I’m sure would come as a huge surprise to their advertisers.

    When a customer texts in and asks for a joke, as pertaining to a specific race, ie, black joke, hispanic joke, etc, this query goes to an expediter (of which I am one). The joke request is there on the expediters screen, as well as suggested answers. The answers in this case obviously would be jokes about people of the requested race.. The jokes they send back to the customers are extremely racists. Here’s an example:
    What do you call two African Americans on a boat headed to Africa? Answer: A good start. All of the jokes are of that tone, and extremely offensive.
    They also have a joke tab called “Dead Baby Jokes”. People text in for a dead baby joke, and ChaCha sends them one. It’s disgusting, but not illegal. I’m not so sure about the racist jokes. If ChaCha is receiving any type of federal grants, etc., I’m sure they wouldn’t be allowed to allow racism or hate speech.
    ChaCha guideline states that if someone texts in and simply asks for “a racist joke”, they will not send them one, BUT, if they text in for “black joke”, they will get a joke such as the one I outlined above, obviously a racist joke.
    They also feature joke tabs titled “retard jokes”, and “Helen Keller” jokes.

    My second concern is just as serious and involves ChaCha’s new employment contracts. All new contractors are now working for points, rather than a specified amount of cash. These contracts are NOT legal, because even with an independent contractor, the company must specify the compensation for said work.

    ChaCha does it this way. At the beginning of the month ChaCha issues a statement to the workers of how much the “guide pool” is worth. This is the pool of money out of which all guides will be paid. Incidentally, for the month of January, 2010, that pool is 75,000 dollars. Each query a guide handles is worth a certain amount of points, for expeditors, each query handled is worth two points. At the end of the month, every guides point total is tallied, and all the points earned by all the guides is divided into the initial guide pool. It’s ironic in the sense that the harder you work, the less each individual point is worth. If all the guides work really hard, and put in the hours, and at the end of the month, guides have racked up hundred of thousands of points, then all the hard work has only accomplished the terrible end result of each point counting for less money.

    Example: You have a point pile that’s worth 100$, and only 100 points are stacked against it, then each point is worth 1$. But a thousand points stacked against it, then each point is worth only 10 cents.

    What is even worse, is that you don’t get to know how much your work was worth until the end of the month, so you work all month without knowing what you’ll be paid. This is where it gets into the area of legality. Sure no one is forced to work for the company, but since the company does insist that you sign a contract, the company must furnish a LEGAL contract, and it has to include the amount of compensation.

    I hired in as a cash guide, and was given to “option” of switching to points. Obviously I did not. I like to know ahead of time how much I’m being paid, however, all of us cash guides will likely be switched to points in March when our contracts expire. All new people hired, beginning in late Dec. 09, were given ONLY the option of working for points.

    The sad thing is, so many of these people do not understand that the more they work, they less their work is worth.

  • Alan

    I actually enjoy the ChaCha/_kgb model as it doesn’t require me to dig through search results when I am looking for an answer. I think this is what appeals to many a long with the novelty aspect of being able to text an off the wall question and receive an answer. And between the 2 I much prefer ChaCha’s search as it is free where as with kgb you pay $.99 per answer right or wrong.

    @Susan – You have to realize that ChaCha does not condone Guides sending out racist answers. If someone receives one they are more than welcome to use ChaCha’s contact info and report it. As far as other jokes, why should ChaCha not cater to those that like them? Say I hate blonde jokes, but you like them, should ChaCha not send you or anyone else one because it offends me? There is nothing illegal about these and I don’t see how it effects you unless you are purposely asking for them.

    On your second point, unless you have a degree as a contract lawyer I can’t see how you can claim how Guides are compensated for their time is illegal. Do you think that ChaCha puts these out there without a lawyer (or many) going over them to make sure they are not breaking any laws?

    Clearly, like you stated, people are aware of what they will be compensated for their time they put in ChaCha. They have a choice whether to continue or stop answering questions. They are not forced to work so many hours a day per week or answer so many questions per day. Many people (the ones who stick around which is thousands) seem to enjoy what they are doing. They enjoy getting whatever they can for spending their time helping others and just having fun.

    Back to the point of the article. I think social search is here to stay and grow. Like quoted in the article “users [are] wanting quick, short answers on their phones without having to dig for anything”. People don’t (or can’t) want to dig through “results” when they are on the road, or on the go, or just being lazy. They want an answer and that is why social search is hugely beneficial to us all.

  • Fotografo

    I own two web sites ( and ) that drive me a lot of customers. I usually take a look to my log files and during the last 6 months I find that the percentage of people that arrived to my web sites using mobile devices jumps from 2% to 15%. Only 6 months and a grow around 600% is a sign that time are changing. Mobile search is a reality.