Talk: Socially Embedded Search

This week I attended a full house talk by Dr.¬†Meredith Ringel Morris on Socially Embedded Search Engines. Dr. Morris put together a lot of material in her presentation and we (audience) could appreciate how she presented all of it, with great clarity, in just one hour. But I think it would tricky for me to summarize everything in a short post. Do check out Dr. Morris’ website to find out more information on the subject.

Social Search is term for when you pose a question to your friends by using one of the social networking tools (like Facebook, Twitter). There is good chance that you might have already been using “Social Search” without knowing the term for it. So, why would you want to do that instead of using regular search engines that you have access to? It may be simpler to ask your friends at times and they could also provide direct, reliable and personalized answers. Moreover, this is something that could work along with the traditional search engines. Dr. Morris’ work gives some insight into the areas where the search engineers have opportunities in combining traditional algorithmic approaches with social search. She tells us about what kind of questions are asked more in a social search and which types of them are more likely to succeed in getting a useful answer. She goes on further into how the topics for these questions vary with people from different cultures.

I really liked the part about “Search buddies” during the talk. In their paper, Dr. Morris and her colleagues have proposed implanting automated agents that post relevant replies to your social search queries. One type of such an agent tries to figure out the topic for the question and recommends friends who seem to be interested in that area by looking at their profiles. While another one would try to use an algorithmic approach and post a link to a web-page that is likely to contain an answer to the question. It was interesting to know more about how other people reacted to the involvement of these automated agents. While some of the people in the experiment appreciated being referred to for an answer, a lot of them found them obnoxious when they didn’t perform well in identifying the contexts. In her more recent work, Dr. Morris has tried to solve these problems by recruiting real people from Mechanical Turk to answer questions on Twitter. Such an approach could respond to people’s questions in a smarter way by collecting information from a several people. It could then respond to these questions in the form of a polling result and quote the number of people recommending a particular answer. It can also work by taking into account any other replies that the participant would have already received from one of his followers. The automated agent would then present that answer for a opinion poll from the Turkers. Although such a system could provide more intelligent replies than ‘dumb’ algorithms but it may still fail in comparison to responses from your friends which would certainly be more personalized and placed better contextually. During the QnA session, one of audience members raised a question (with a follow-up question by Prof. Kraut)¬† about comparing these methods with question-and-answer websites such as Quora. While these sites may not provide as personalized results but will certainly do better in drawing the attention of people interested in similar topics. It may not be always possible to find somebody amongst your friends, to answer question on a specialized¬† topic.

Dr. Morris’ talk provided some really good backing for some of the recent steps taken by search engines like Bing (having ties with both Twitter and Facebook), Google (and the Google plus shebang) and also Facebook (with Graph Search) in this direction. It would be interesting to see how social computing research shapes the future of internet search.

Further Reading

You can find Dr. Morris’ publications on this topic here: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/merrie/publications.html

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