Google has wielded its dominance of web search as a key weapon in its battle with Facebook, with a new approach that draws information from its Google+ social network directly into users' search results.By including more personal and social information in its results, the new feature also takes Google a big step towards fulfilling a dream long talked about by its top executives: to create a personalised search engine that "knows" its users so well that all the results are tuned directly to their interests.
Known as Search plus Your World, the new approach marks the most direct attempt yet by Google to use its core service to help it make up lost ground in social networking. However, favouring its own Google+ network at the expense of rivals could heighten regulatory concerns at a time when the company's behaviour is already under the microscope in Brussels and Washington.
"They could have done this for Facebook and Twitter and they didn't," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land. "That will probably make some antitrust people even more anxious over what [Google] is doing."
Alex Macgillivray, Twitter's general counsel, tweeted that it was "a bad day for the internet. I can imagine the dissension @Google to search being warped this way."
The immediate impact on the rivalry with Facebook is likely to be limited given the newness of the Google+ network and the relative lack of content posted on it, some observers said. "The intent [behind personalisation] is great but I'm not sure today Google+ is of sufficient volume or sophistication," said Martin McNulty, general manager at Forward3D, a UK search marketing firm.
Google said it would "certainly be open" to including other services, but justified the current exclusion because it "does not have access to crawl all the information on some sites." It also said it only has "persistent access to information from Google+".
With the new feature, content shared privately with contacts on Google+ will be included in search results, though Google said it would ensure that it kept the same levels of privacy as applied on its social network. Google also said it would be able to show profiles of friends when a user enters a name in its search box, and that it would suggest interesting people or pages to follow on Google+ in response to some standard search queries.
The changes are part of a shift towards including personal and social information that marks "the most radical transformation ever" for Google's search service, Mr Sullivan said, while also meeting a long-held ambition of the company's leaders.
Eight years ago, Eric Schmidt, then Google chief executive, said: "We would like to have a Google that knows you, that understands your preferences."
Making search more personalised, meanwhile, could make it harder for brand owners to use search engine optimisation techniques to ensure their pages appear at the top of "organic" or natural results for particular keywords, some experts warned.
As a result, advertisers are likely to switch some their marketing spending away from optimisation, said Stefan Bardega, managing partner at MediaCom, WPP's media agency. "All of this pours more money into the core business of Google, which is the pay-per-click AdWords model. It will become almost impossible to get the same level of effectiveness in organic results," he said.