Between Google+ and Microsoft’s integration of Facebook into Bing, it seems that big brands’ product teams believe social search is the way of the future.

Since day one, Google has strived for relevance in its PageRank algorithm. But what is relevant to one person might not matter to another. As a result, Google has attempted to filter and curate the search results we see based on what knowledge it can ascertain from us.

The idea is that the more it knows about us, the better it can serve us. Will the introduction of social media in search improve search, or does it run the risk of making it worse? Let’s take closer look at the issue to help you draw your own conclusion.

Spammers and Scammers

One large concern in introducing social into search is the threat of spamming as a form of SEO. What’s to stop search results from being gamed and tainted by would-be spammers who’d flood social networks with links from fake or phished accounts? While the introduction of direct social ties into search is a new idea, a similar concern was tackled a while ago in the form of blog comment spam.

In 2005, just as blogging was hitting its stride, blog spam became a massive problem. Spammers would flood a site’s comments field with links to medications and other products’ sales pages. Because this practice increased the amount of inbound links to the sites spammers were plugging, Google’s algorithm would then think those sites were more relevant, and potentially rank them higher. However, a solution was settled on with the “nofollow” HTML attribute. Search providers and content management platforms soon jumped on board. The “nofollow” tag became a standard way of telling a search engine to ignore a link, thus deflating the value of this spamming tactic.

The introduction of the “nofollow” standard was just one part of the solution to spam. In recent years, Google has continued to tweak its algorithms to make it harder to game the results. It’s unlikely that spammers using social media tactics would be able to make much of a dent in rank results without Google compensating for it as well.

Fear of The “Filter Bubble”

Another concern: Social search may cause a “filter bubble.” In March of 2011 Eli Pariser gave a TED talk with which he outlined the concerns of a catered web. He highlighted that Facebook and Google individually hide and show certain things from search results and feeds based on criteria that they think are most relevant to the individual.

Mr. Pariser spoke of a world where the only things people will see in their searches are things directly catered to each of them. While the potential downside might not be obvious at first, the concern is that people would find themselves trapped in a digital echo chamber devoid of exposure to new things.

Mr. Pariser brought up the issue of social responsibility with the example of a search for “Egypt.” While one person who is politically inclined might see results related to the Arab Spring, another might not. This could potentially leave him or her unaware of the conflict. There is a danger inherent in curated search if not used responsibly.

The Mixture for Ultimate Relevancy

A good way to think about Google’s SEO rankings is to envision it as a series of sliders on a sound engineer’s mixing board. Just as the engineer might turn up the bass while also turning up the vocals, Google can (and does) tweak the value of different factors to deliver what it feels are the best results possible.

The power of social media comes from the control that individuals have over their own experiences. Each member of a social network chooses who they follow and who they friend; this ultimately gives them the ability to choose what they learn about. If social media influences their search results, this could give people the power to break out of their filter bubbles. By Liking, friending and following things outside of their normal circles, social media users could potentially expose themselves to new things.

Social media is just one of many knobs on Google’s SEO mixing board. As social media factors begin to affect results, Google can always turn up or down its influence. In the meantime, more and more people are gleaning their entertainment, news, and even their livelihoods from social media. How much — or how little — these factors should influence Google’s search results is a debate that’s likely to continue for some time.

[Image credits: Luca Contikrow10, John Morrison]