BusinessWeek has a story today "Microsoft Gets Social" which talks about projects underway at Microsoft that incorporates social network search technology.
“Microsoft plans to unveil a question-and-answer social-search tool in the coming months, says Justin Osmer, senior product manager for MSN. The feature will let users direct questions to a specific universe, such as a group of friends, rather than to get automated lists of results from a generic search engine.”
Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineWatch points out "BusinessWeek confuses the forthcoming Q&A tool with social search. Those are two completely different types of search features/services, of which Q&A is the least important. In fact, it just reeks of another "me too" move that's not going to budge MSN Windows Live Search's usage among searchers."
I agree. Q&A Search involves asking a question of a group of users or "experts". I guess the group of users could be your social network...but I am unclear how this would work. Would your search be emailed to your social network group and wait for answers to come back? Who would be willing to wait for that? There have been several attempts at "Answers" or Q&A Search without much success.
Social Search typically means that the basic search results are filtered by the preferences or search history of your friends and social network. Jookster is a good example of this type of social search.
All of these approaches are attempts to improve relevance of search results. My experience is that search users are very impatient. They will not wait more than two seconds for results, or spend time organizing their search preferences, or enter a group of friends in a profile.
At AltaVista we had search "word pairs" to help the user refine their search. If they entered a one word query like Jaguar, we would immediately serve up a results page for Jaguar, but also offer a line that said "Did you mean "Jaguar car", Jaguar animal", Jaguar NFL", etc. If a user entered a two word query we would offer alternative three word queries to help them further refine results.
There are lots of search companies trying to use tags, social networks, user history, voting schemes, and all sorts of things to try and improve search results. My guess is that users will get better at entering precise queries, and search engines will get better at ranking results, or offering alternative search queries. The search game is far from over.