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Social search generally refers to a website or service that relies on the participation of a community (as opposed to an algorithm) to come up with answers to specific questions or to provide links to websites or other resources of common interest.

What is social search? To paraphrase Microsoft's Ramez Naam, it's like every human being is a neuron, and humanity as a whole is one giant brain, smarter as a connected whole. If you can increase the ability of humans to communicate with each other, you make the whole planet smarter.

As articulated by Chris Sherman, social search is information retrieval, way finding tools informed by human judgment. Social search is people helping people find stuff using plain-language questions and answers, collaborative content harvesting, directory building, voting and ranking, sharing, tagging, commenting on bookmarks, Web pages, news, images, videos and podcasts.

The wisdom of crowds – so well articulated by James Surowiecki – is at the root of emerging information retrieval tools. Search engines are trying to resolve user intent more than content connectivity, and social search adds a new relevance layer to information retrieval in the form of context, freshness and some understanding of personal significance, personalization.

There is a shift underway from the few powerful elite to the empowerment of the masses, from few-to-many to many-to-many publishing models with an explosion in consumer-generated media. According to a Pew Internet and American Life report, 44 percent of Internet users are content creators. A significant ratio of the top 100 results for more queries are consumer-generated media such as blogs and social networks, which sounds like an invitation for social media marketers to seed more content. Internet users are getting a lot more comfortable interacting with the Web, as illustrated by MySpace’s 159,271,726 profiles (as of February 28, 2007), and the web is getting a whole lot more fluid and transparent. That said, not everybody needs to be tagging and voting for collaborative efforts to reach critical-mass impact and benefit the rest of us. There is a shift taking place from the head to Chris Anderson's long tail.

Social search offers a new discovery paradigm. Internet search is for getting stuff done; it's an in-and-out navigational tool. Search is also very much about discovery browsing and community-driven recommendation engines. Discovery browsing is entering a whole new navigation paradigm exemplified by companies like StumbleUpon. The traditional linear directory navigation model is broken. Most emerging social discovery engines are adopting tag clouds as navigation tools that complement the search box.

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