Searching outside the search box

A large untapped opportunity in social networks is connecting people with information they’re looking for.

I was flying home this weekend from Lake Tahoe and connected in Salt Lake City. While I was there, I updated my Facebook status to indicate that I was in Utah for the first time.

Later that night I received a message from my friend Dean:

hey Rocky, whatcha doing in the beautiful, bizarre state of UT?

I lived there for a year after AOL. Let me know if you need any tips on where to go while you are there.

Salt Lake City AirportWithout doing a search, I had information coming directly to me from someone I knew. I was just in Utah for 90 minutes, so I didn’t need any tips. But when I go there for real, I now know to begin my search with Dean.

By distributing information needs through our network, social networks allow us to tap into a large base of knowledge from known sources.

Services like Yahoo! Answers allow you to ask questions, but Answers is largely anonymous. Too many of the answers devolve into insults and name calling and it’s hard to tell if people know what they’re talking about. There is also an incentive problem: I don’t participate in Yahoo! Answers because I don’t have enough time to answer questions for random strangers. But I’m happy to answer questions for friends.

LinkedIn’s Answers product usually delivers better results by posing questions just to your network. And because I know these people, I can easily assess the credibility of their answers. LinkedIn’s professional focus is a bit limiting; I wouldn’t pose questions about vacation plans there.

If I were really going to Utah, I suppose I could spam everyone I know with an email asking if anyone knew anything about Utah. The passive approach of updating my Facebook status is more socially acceptable.

For now, this relies on my friends seeing my status message and responding. It was more or less random that Dean saw my status message. As social networks get smarter (and get more data), the request can be routed automatically to the people likely to have a good answer. My status message could be displayed more prominently to friends whose profiles indicated that they’d lived in or visited Utah.

Marketers can also be part of the conversation. Facebook allows you to become a “fan” of a company or a product. If I become a “fan” of United Airlines, they could send me information about their Utah service or upcoming sales. I’d love to hear about any great deals to Park City this winter.

More on: Facebook, search

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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