Google's search revamp is all about social

January 10, 2012: 9:30 AM ET

Seeking more personalized results and exposure for its fledgling Google+, the search giant is changing the results it displays.

FORTUNE -- Google+ is about to get a whole lot more exposure.

GoogleIn a move that is certain to sharpen its rivalry with Facebook, Google (GOOG) on Tuesday is introducing a revamped version of its ubiquitous search engine that will dive deeply into the company's fledgling social network, Google+, to find content that is relevant to a particular user. The change will expose Google+ profiles, as well as posts and photographs uploaded to the network, to hundreds of millions of search users whether or not they have Google+ accounts. In many cases, the changes will push content from other sites, including Facebook, further down on the search results pages.

Google said the changes were among the most significant it had made in years. "This is the biggest expansion of the kind of content that user can see since Universal Search," Ben Gomes, a Google Fellow, said in an interview. Google introduced Universal Search, which began combining Web pages with images, videos and other types of content in search results, in 2007.

Starting Tuesday, a search for the name of a friend, for example, will likely bring that person's Google+ profile as the top search result. As a result, their profiles on Facebook or LinkedIn will appear lower.

The changes are likely to renew persistent criticism that Google promotes content from its own services, like maps, reviews, YouTube and, now, Google+ ahead of those of rivals. Gomes said that Google is simply trying to make its search engine more useful. "Our goal is to bring the user the most relevant data based on their query," he said.

Under the changes -- dubbed "search, plus your world" -- Google will also include in search results private content that a user has uploaded or that someone has shared with them on Google+ or Picasa. For example, if you search for Hawaii, you are likely to see pictures of your trip to Hawaii from your own albums, or from a friend's album. You may also see travel tips and recommendations that your friends may have posted on Google+.

Generic searches for broad topics will now also include profiles and pages from Google+ for people who are relevant and important to that topic. A search for "music" may suggest the profiles of Britney Spears or Snoop Dogg to the right of search results.

This kind of personalization has long seen as a holy grail of Web search. Facebook has been working with Microsoft (MSFT) to allow that company's search engine, Bing, to surface more personalized content. And the Facebook platform has allowed countless services, like Yelp, Pandora (P) and Spotify, to become more personal by showing users content that is relevant to their Facebook friends.

Users who do not want personalized content will be able to turn it off easily, the company said.

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Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft
Senior Writer, Fortune

Miguel Helft is a San Francisco-based Senior Writer at FORTUNE, where he covers Silicon Valley. He joined FORTUNE in August 2011 following a 5-year stint as a reporter at The New York Times covering companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. His knowledge of Silicon Valley and the tech world runs deep. He worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in the late-1980s, and for the past 15 years, he has chronicled major industry events -- from the Microsoft antitrust trial to the dot-com boom and bust - at publications like the Industry Standard, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Born and raised in Argentina, Helft emigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he earned a BA in Philosophy and a Master's in Computer Science.

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