The Search Game

Social search is a topic near and dear to my heart, but one that I haven't really though about too much from a gaming/gamification perspective. But perhaps there's something to be gained from such a pursuit. I want to use this post to float some ideas about how gamification principles have been applied to the development of search platforms, and to point the direction where I see such principles being applied in the future.

So what exactly do we mean by social search, anyway? Wikipedia defines it as "a type of web search that takes into account the Social Graph of the person initiating the search query". In other words, social search platforms, in one way or another, preferentially display results/information from other users that form part of your social network, while allowing users to share information among the members of that social network. For the purposes of a social search service, this network is usually defined by a combination of people you actually know (i.e. your Facebook friends, other users of the service who are in your Google Contacts list, etc.) and other users who are calculated to be similar to you (i.e. shared interests as described in your user profile, similar browsing history, etc.). Despite the fact that web search environments are inherently social (at least insofar as many users concurrently navigate them), the concept of building a social component into search is relatively new, only arising in the mid 2000's. Prior to that, and today still, search engine results have largely been determined by the actual link structure of the web, not how real people navigate that structure (PageRank is the most well-known algorithm for determining the value of a site for the purposes of search).

In the last few years, however, social search has really taken off, perhaps being most strongly spurred by the trend of "sharing" links via Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. Since then, other services for social information finding have been cropping up, like Google's social search service, which highlights results that have been shared by people in your social network. There also are quite a number of question-and-answer services, the canonical one being Yahoo! Answers, where users can't answer open questions and rate the answers of others. Newer services in this vein (which try to actually pair the right kind of answerers with the right questions based on information in their user profiles) include Quora, Aardvark, and ChaCha.

So search is definitely becoming social. The strategies available to us for finding information online clearly are no longer limited to the results we get from a query typed into Google or Yahoo. But social search hasn't taken over yet. We may find cool articles in our Facebook news feeds, or resort to Yahoo! Answers when we can't find answers elsewhere, but the traditional search paradigm is still king (even if it has a lost a bit of ground to social alternatives). I'm pretty confident that, as means of analyzing browsing histories and sharing that information between users improve, social search will mature into something much more useful and integrated into our regular web search behavior, but we're not there yet. In the meantime, can we learn anything by thinking about social search from a gamification perspective?

I'd say the answer is most definitely yes, and we can already see gamified elements in some of the major players in social search and information sharing. Let's consider a few:

  • The "like" button: It's not tied into any broader game-like system, but Facebook's "like" button has seemingly taken over the web (possibly with some negative consequences), serving as a kind of virtual scorecard for information resources. The up-and-coming Google +1 button functions similarly, but will actually feature +1'd items more prominently in your standard web queries.
  • Yahoo! Answers: This system has its faults, since users submit a question and then simply wait, hoping that someone answers it (among other deficiencies), but it is still an extremely popular service. Getting personalized answers can be incredibly useful, and to encourage people to take things seriously and be active members of the question-and-answer community, Yahoo! has implemented a fairly simple, but intuitive, scoring system, complete with leaderboards.
  • StumbleUpon: As a service, StumbleUpon is really simple. You make a a profile listing a few categories of things you find interesting, and then click the "stumble" button to be taken to random website (video, article, whatever) that the systems thinks you'll find interesting. You give feedback by simply giving pages either a thumbs up or thumbs down, which is then fed back into the recommendation algorithm to improve the pages pushed to you in the future. It's pretty neat, though what makes it interesting for the sake of this conversation are the social elements layered on top of the simple "stumbling" mechanic. StumbleUpon has layered an entire community on top of the browsing experience, where you can make friends among the site's users, share links on other social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and comment on pages. What's particularly is the prominent display of users' statistics on their profile pages, listing the number of favorites (pages given a thumbs-up), followers, discoveries (new links submitted to the SU database), and more. Perhaps it's not gamification in the most explicit sense, but it still provides a scoreboard of sorts where it's immediately clear which users are the most active on the site and most interesting to other users.

All of these examples of course center on sharing of information across a social network, but from a gamification perspective we can see that these services all implement mechanics to (a) build user reputation, and (b) keep users active and engaged members of the community, but what's interesting here is that these two concepts become practically inseparable. Travis talked a bit about the importance of reputation in his last post, and it's become a common feature of multiplayer gaming and web-based social systems of all kinds (in addition to the examples above, think of user-levels on many online forums, or seller ratings on eBay). Now, it may not be common to think of reputation systems under the gamification umbrella, since they don't necessarily increase user engagement or make the experience more fun in and of themselves. Instead they indirectly increase engagement by achieving goals such as helping players avoid hackers/griefers (as in many MMOs), make purchases from the best sellers (as on eBay or the Amazon Marketplace), or seek information from reliable sources (in social search systems). But in implementing systems to achieve theses ends, many online communities are actually becoming game-like, at least in the third case. In the first two cases, there are ulterior motives for having a good reputation (if you have a bad reputation in an mmo, nobody will play with you, and a seller on eBay needs a good reputation to actually make sale), but in social search systems the reputation is in itself a motivating factor. Having a bad reputation or low ranking on something like Yahoo! Answers or StumbleUpon, on the other hand, really isn't that big of a deal; you're no less able to take advantage of the community's offering. Users may at times participate out of a sense of responsibility to the community, but in most cases what motivates them is the desire to 'win' or have a 'high score'. The moment Yahoo! implements a leaderboard for the Answers service, StumbleUpon shows a count of how many pages you've favorited, or a forum adds a leveling system, users are going to want to maximize their score/level/whatever. This in turns means people will ask and answer more questions, "stumble" and rate more pages, and make more forum posts. And when other users can provide feedback on their compatriots' contributions, everyone will be motivated to make those contributions worthwhile. So, in the end, implementing user reputation encourages users to be active, contributing members of the community without strong secondary motivations for their participation, except in the more abstract sense that the community ends up better for everyone when they all participate.

This all good and well - by tracking users contributions to an online information sharing community and letting the rest of the community provide feedback on those contributions (either explicitly or implicitly), we can help ensure that more, better information is shared. But can gamification do more for us? That is, can social search platforms implement other game-like mechanics that will end up helping people connect with valuable information more easily? The current systems for sharing links to pre-existing content can expose you to interesting material you otherwise may never have looked for (like when someone posts a cool video on Facebook, or you "Stumble" to an interesting Wikipedia article), but it's rare in such circumstances to get to content that's immediately relevant to your current information needs. On the other hand, question-and-answer services like Yahoo! Answers address some immediate information need, but you're stuck waiting, hoping that someone out there will answer your question. What's lacking seems to be a social search service existing between these alternative, one that pushes information to you in real-time, but that addresses the questions you're currently trying to answer. This is where I see gamified elements really taking hold - it's one thing to motivate people to answer questions on a question-and-answer site at their convenience, but quite another to elicit real-time search assistance from real users (who aren't doing to make money). By gamifying the process, we could develop social search services where a user could submit a question or request help on a search task, and receive immediate help from real human beings vying for the top spots on leaderboards for specific topics, geographic areas ("top recommender for San Francisco"), or accolades like "fastest responder".

I don't have a specific design in mind at the moment, but I'd say this is definitely a direction worth exploring. Social search is a rich field that has plenty of room to grow, and gamification may well be a good way to encourage that growth.

The Search Game by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 Responses to “The Search Game”

  1. Josh says:

    Hi Jared.

    I wonder, given the failure of pay-to-answer Google Answers, if gamification would really be so successful. I would think the monetary incentive would be stronger than the gaming incentive, but it seems like the money incentive already failed -- and it's not as if it was tried by a fledgling company that couldn't pull it off.

    There's also plenty of ask-and-answer sites that already indicate how prolific a user is in their profile, through numbers (scores) and/or ranks. I wonder if simply changing the semantics from "quality posts" (or something similar) to "points on a leader board" would really make that much difference?

    The real-time suggestion is interesting. My concern with that would be the balance between quality of information and speed. How do you prevent a bunch of people from spamming the questioner: "First!!!"?

    This is a cool topic, I'll have to think more about it.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Josh. I admit I wasn't too familiar with the Google Answers model, but after a quick glance I think it's not the fairest of comparison. The 'answerers' were contractors who had to go through a rigorous screening process (which makes sense, if people were going to be paying real $$$ for the), and the asking price for answers was actually pretty high (the lowest I saw was $2, with some exceeding $20). My point is that this created an ecosystem that was hard to enter - there was a lot of work required to answer questions (or, to be eligible, at least...though it seems the expectations for the research put in to an anser were high), and a non-trivial investment from the asker, as well. There's so much information that's free out there, and so many people who would be willing to share their knowledge just for the ego-boost it involves (and perhaps out of a touch of care for their fellow man), this just doesn't seem like the right domain to monetize. Not how Google did, at least.
    So yes, I think the gaming incentive can outweigh the monetary incentive for the average internet user.

    To address your second point, it's less about the semantics of "point" versus "quality posts" than it is about the idea of being ranked among other users (whatever the units). The higher-ranked user gets the visceral satisfaction of "winning" and the satisfaction of being a respected member of the community. And as long as a system is in place to police the quality of his answers/posts/whatever, he'll be incentivized to continue making quality contributions to the community.

    This leads me to your last point. I agree that there's a spam-danger here, since everyone wants to be first, but presumably the questioner would down-vote those spam answers, dropping that user's reputation. The system has to police itself to work, but I think that's realistic if the users are legitimately engaged.

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