Could Librarians Be Influential Friends? And Who Owns Your Search Persona?

Every so often, I’ve posted about the erosion of a universal Google ground truth as Google rolls out personalisation features that tweak the ranking of search results presented to you based on what Google knows about you. So with a recent announcement from Bing about its search integration with Facebook, I started wondering: could academic subject librarians (in a professional capacity) start to influence the search results of their charges (students, researchers, academics), simply by developing a strong persona as seen by the search engines, and friending their patrons in a public way also visible to the search engines.

So what exactly did Bing announce? Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan described it in Bing, Now With Extra Facebook: See What Your Friends Like & People Search Results as follows: “Bing is now making use of it to show new “Liked By Your Friends” matches and Facebook-powered people search results.” Liked results (when they appear), are currenlty presented in a specially marked out “liked by your Facebook friends” listing (Danny’s post shows some screenshot examples). However:

[o]utside the Liked Results, Facebook’s data is not being used to reshape the “regular” results, the listings found from crawling the web. Rather, traditional ranking factors such as the content on the pages and how people link to them is used — similar to what Google does.

Like Results are also unique to each person. What I get depends upon who my friends are. Someone else, with a different set of friends, will see different links suggested.

One thing is certain. If you haven’t been paying attention to Facebook like buttons, get moving. There’s already some direct benefit in search, and chances are this will grow.

So, the question that immediately came to my mind was: if librarians become Facebook friends of their patrons, and start “Liking” high quality resources they find on the web, might they start influencing the results that are presented to their patrons on particular searches?”

That is: could librarians take on a role of “influential friends” in a particular topic area, much as a subject librarian helps guide a patron in a traditional library? Or how about recasting the idea of the “embedded librarian” as a librarian who is embedded in the network, and who role is essentially to provide SEO services for content they want to help their patrons discover? (This relates to the question: if discovery happens elsewhere, how can librarins influence that discovery? Is SEO of other peoples’ content in some way akin to a weak form of collection development?!)

Where else might this line of thinking take us? If the Goog can track folk signed into a Google Apps for Edu domain, such as, could that network of people be used to influence search results somehow…?

Just by the by, here are a couple of other examples of how content published or curated by one person might appear in or influence* the results of a person they are socially or organisationally connected to:

Explore Interesting, Personal Photos on Yahoo! Search describes how their “new ‘Facebook Album Search beta’ feature, [allows you to] find public albums from the friends and family you’re connected to on Facebook (after you have linked your Yahoo! and Facebook accounts)”.

Is Google Custom Search Influencing Google Web Search? starts to consider how the curation of a custom search engine might influence the discovery or ranking of sites and pages listed the CSE in the general web search context. (Or by extension of the above, maybe CSEs curated by trusted sources in a Google Apps for Edu domain be used to provide additional ranking factors to searches run logged in members of that domain?) If CSEs do influence rankings, maybe CSE development is a form of collection development that can influence the search results of others at a distance (i.e. on Google web search?!)

*I think this is a distinction worth bearing in mind as things play out: the ability for one person to publish content that is directly favourably ranked in another person’s results, versus the ability for one person to directly influence the ranking of third party content that appears in another person’s results.

Search Histories, Personas and Profiles as Intellectual Capital

Given the above, let us suppose that an individual can gain influence over the search results of people they are connected to by virtue of the way they have “touched” the web. If we consider the actual searches made by an individual themselves, this may also have value (as for example when a search engine tunes the results it displays for you based on your persoanl search history). I’ve touched on this before, e.g. in the context of a discussion I had with Martin Weller a couple of years ago (Your search is valuable to us) that crystallised this idea out me that I keep coming back to – that your profile as a search engine user is something of value not only to an individual, but potentially also to an institution or a service. Which is to say: the combination of what a search engine knows about you (incl social circle, things you search for, click on, search history, etc etc) and how it uses that information to tweak your personal search engine ranking factors define a “search engine persona”, which is a valuable knowledge commodity.

I think this question then follows: should institutions develop role-based personas that run searches, Like things on the web and so on, that are the “property” of the institution and inhabited by individuals employed to the role (a user employed as web-embedded Science librarian must use the weblibrarian_science account for example), or the should the liking, research librarian search history and so on be carried out by individuals using their personal Google accounts? In the former case, when an indivudal leaves the role, they also leave behind the persona and the machine advantage it brings (e.g. in terms of pesonal search recommendations) they have developed.

Time was when academics used to leave behind valuable collections of books and papers (valuable in the sense of being a particular collection). We’re now getting to a stage where you if work with machines that learn from your actions, that learning is valuable. So who has a right to it? (I think it wouldnlt be too hard to push this argument into the realm of transhumanism and “downloading”?!)

PS It seems that Google+ may now be influencing personalised search results, tweaking them include public Google+ updates from members of your Google+ Circles: The latest update to Google Social Search: Public Google+ Posts

PPS related…. although this may not be a true story (/via @charlesarthur), could we expect to start seeing things like this? Bruce Willis May Sue Apple Over Right To Bequeath His iTunes Library

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

14 thoughts on “Could Librarians Be Influential Friends? And Who Owns Your Search Persona?”

  1. Very interesting and a hell of a lot to unpack here, Tony. Here are a few preliminary thoughts.

    In terms of ‘liking’ or gaining influence over a user’s search results, I think there are some interesting issues that emerge when considering ‘the librarian’ in this role. Is there an assumption here that this person/persona ‘knows’ what a user might want in the specific discovery context? In other words, I wonder if there’s too much of a disconnect between the ‘influencer’ and the end user context in this scenario. The librarian needs to understands needs as part of a dialogue. Arguably usage activity, online behavior, reading lists, etc can all play a part here to make the recommendations or liked materials rank higher and be contextually appropriate for particular users but this might be a more complex proposition.

    On another note, though, it’s also interesting that at the Archives Hub we’ve actually recently made a tactical decision to invite contributing archives to search their collections via the Hub in order that they are indexed by Google (we have indexing set up in this way at present, though this may change) and also rank higher. For us this comes down to a more fundamental issue of actually getting visibility of hidden collection via google in the first place. But devil’s advocate might say it’s not necessarily an activity conducted with any real contextual understanding of what users need or are searching for.

    1. Given these algorithms still only have a minor effect, the most you could probably hope to do is Like the sorts of sites that appear on Library web pages as “recommended links for this topic area’ (which is a form of weak SEO in it’s own right, right?!;-) on the offchance that they get a boost in your students search results.

      WRT Archives hub, sort of, I’ve started experimenting with ways of generating personal topical custom search engines, e.g. based around folk using the same hashtag or appearing on a particular Twitter list: e.g.

      I think this can probably done on the fly… just not investigated that bit yet…;-)

  2. Tony – I personally believe that Librarians of some kind are going to become really important curators of information in the future. They can use emerging aggregation and curation tools to handle the overload that’s out there and turn it into a meaningful flow for a given audience. However, I’m not sure I quite get the search angle or the persona or ??? And I wonder if my description above will really be traditional librarians or if the rest of us will become a kind of librarian.

    Still very interesting stuff.

    1. Librarians can curate all they like, but so what? In the main, folk start a “research” task by using popular web search engines or their friends. My suggestion is that librarians, or librarian personas need to embed themselves in the social networks of their patrons (I’m talking here about academic or corporate research librarians) so that they can “unknowingly” influence the search results of their patrons, by having things they have rated get a boost in their patron’s search results.

      So for example: I get personalised search results from Google; Google uses however many ranking factors to personalise the order of the results; some of those ranking factors come from my social circle, in the form of signals relating to content my friends have either published or recommended.

      Given that I use Google not the Library, talk to my twitter friends not go to the library, etc etc, if the library wants to have any influence at all over the search results I see, it has to do SEO on those results, on behalf of the publishers, so that I am more likely to see those results rather than any other results.

      As to search personas – the idea is mainly this. My search results are personalised according to *my* search history, the searches I make, the links I click on, the sites I visit. It may be the case that my search engine personalisation makes my search results better than yours for a particular topic. (Okay, it might be that my search engine personalisation makes my search results better *for me* on a topic than if i saw your search results for the same topic (which may be better for you, but if we’re talking discovery around a research topic where we’re looking for some sort of “truth”, maybe there are saw universally useful results that my search engine is more likely to discover than yours because I’ve been searching in that area for years and you have only since last Thursday.) So, my search engine persona – that thing that Google knows about me and uses to personalise my search results – is useful. And it’s transferable… the Goog could copy that context to you; the Goog could let you search *as me* and benefit from my personalisations.

      Here’s another way of trying to get a handle on it – suppose I’m an archivist with a highly effective indexing system that no-one else understands. I can get stuff out of the archive like no-one’s business, but it takes anyone else forever to do the same retrieval task. Part of the value of personalised search engines is that they are dependent on history; as such, they are in part *retrieval* engines. And one might imagine that sites visited and liked before also provide boosted Page Rank goodness to the calculation of results ranking for my future searches. There is also a history of search queries and search strategies I have used, and which can be referred to.

      And another way: some academic researchers are very careful not to share bookmarks or reveal to others what they are reading, because they don’t want to give away any clues to their evil competitors (wtf is it about researchers being competitive ffs?!;-) about the leads they are following. They know their search history is valuable…

      So the question is: if I train the Google in my role as “widget research librarian”, and run 50 searches a day on widgets for various members of my company, and train my personalised Google search engine all there is to know about widgets, and then I get a job offer with a rival company: who owns that expert search context, the one that has been being trained on widgets for the last 10 years?

      So it boils down to this: I work in a job and optimise a process; do I get to take the process when I leave? The search context is the process. So do I own the search context (do I own the account I have been personalising through my searches for the last 10 years) and get to take it with me when I leave? Do i give it to the company? Or do I sign an agreement saying I won’t use that search context for 12 months as a non-competition restriction?

      By the way, I don’t think search personalisation is necessarily that great yet, but as we keep on training these machines, the search contexts may become valuable.

  3. Related, from Phil Bradley:
    “Librarians in the publishing role”

    e.g. “Now, this is where the librarian comes into play. We are beginning to see the importance of a good social media reputation (that’s one of the reasons why Facebook and Google are so keen on the like/+1 concept). People generally trust librarians, which is a good thing. If librarians can get involved with authors much more closely (which the authors will be keen to do, as they already are), it should be possible to start choosing good ebooks and alerting people to them, talking to other librarians about them, using them in book clubs and so on. Expert librarians are going to be able to take on a much more powerful alerting/reviewing role in the future. This already works in bookshops, with ‘staff picks’ and ‘staff reviews’, so it should be at least as powerful, if not more so, when librarians get involved.”

    See also this follow on post from Phil that relates more directly to this post: “Libraries as an influence on search results”

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