Wednesday, September 5, 2012
The more we post on social sites like Facebook and Twitter, the larger the mounds of data we generate about our habits—what we like and dislike, interesting stories we've read, cute animal videos we've watched.
If you're like me, you see most of this stuff just once as it passes through your Facebook news feed or Twitter tweets list, and then it seemingly vanishes as new updates push old ones farther down on the screen.
Just because it's no longer breaking news doesn't make it irrelevant, though. Companies like Google and Microsoft are increasingly realizing the value of this data, surfacing it alongside regular results on their search engines (see "Social Search").
In addition to the expected results, a query for "peanut butter" fed into Google can also yield related posts from your friends on Google+, while Microsoft's Bing search engine can surface posts from Facebook friends along with suggestions of people you don't know on various social sites who may be knowledgeable about the sticky food (such as the actress Debra Messing, who apparently has a penchant for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups).
A startup called Wajam hopes to tap this trend by offering a free Web browser plug-in that brings up a pop-up containing related content from your friends on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ when you search on more than a dozen sites—including Google, Bing, Amazon.com, eBay, and Wikipedia. Wajam launched publicly last year, and has gradually added capabilities, including, most recently, several online retail sites and an iPhone component. And, although Wajam's approach still needs plenty of work, it's easy to imagine this kind of search becoming the norm in the next few years.
Wajam bests the big guys with its availability and flexibility. You can use it on all four major browsers (Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Safari), and it pulls up relevant social data on both the obvious websites and less-expected ones like IMDb, TripAdvisor, and Shopping.com. Once you sign up on the site and download the plug-in, your Wajam results show up as a pop-up on the page, sometimes with ads (although you can turn ads off in Wajam's settings).
Wajam probably works best for topics you're already interested in. For me, it worked for tech especially—because I have a lot of friends and business contacts who post about such things on Twitter and Facebook. Looking up "artificial intelligence" on Wikipedia, for example, yielded a number of interesting articles about AI, while a search for "Nikola Tesla" surfaced a clever YouTube video called "The History of Nikola Tesla—a Short Story."
It helped me hunt for recipes, too. I've googled "macaroni and cheese" many times, but with Wajam I got both the expected results from Google and some more interesting ones: a link to a Civil War-era recipe, and a link to an NPR story about smugglers trafficking drugs inside cheese.
But Wajam was most useful when I searched on Amazon, where I'm always on the prowl for new electronics. A search for "earbuds" brought up both popular ones that the online retailer sells and a Wajam box with links to relevant articles and some potentially excellent 'buds.
It wasn't as useful when I tried searching for hotels in Vietnam or tandem bikes. This seems like something that is likely to improve over time, though, as my friends and I use social media more and more to catalog our adventures (and, perhaps, as I make more friends who like to travel and cycle).
The biggest problem I had with the service on my computer was its sluggishness. There was always a noticeable delay before the Wajam results surfaced, and it could take a long time to load once I clicked to see links, photos, or videos. Sometimes I just didn't have the patience to wait.
Wajam recently made the jump to the iPhone screen, offering a version of its service as a downloadable profile—which essentially allows the producer of the profile to intercept data as it flows to your iPhone from the Internet. In Wajam's case, this allows it to add its own social layer on top of the Google Maps app and Google Search in Safari. Wajam marketing manager, Alain Wong, says this workaround is necessary due to Apple's restrictions regarding iOS apps working together and sharing data.
With Wajam on my iPhone, I could search for "brunch" or "happy hour" in Google Maps and see places my friends had visited (these results show up with little "w" tags on the map). And in Safari, Wajam adds a new "friends" tab to the Google Search page, where it surfaces in social search results.
The mobile version of Wajam has some kinks. Wajam currently works over your 3G data network, so if, like me, you don't have a great 3G connection at work or home, you'll be limited in how you use it (Wong says it will work over Wi-Fi, but you'd need a new profile for every Wi-Fi network you use). More irritatingly, the service kept prompting me to authenticate myself with my username and password. Eventually, this got so maddening that I deleted the app from my iPhone. And though I tried multiple times to reinstall it, I was unable to get it working again for about 24 hours—Wong says this was due to an issue that has since been fixed.
Despite its issues, I'm curious to see what happens to Wajam. With social search still in its infancy, there's plenty of room to grow and improve; hopefully Wajam will do both.