This blog post originally appeared on the web site of the Harvard Business Review.

Of all the sessions I missed at this year’s SXSW, the one that I regretted the most was the Social Search panel, which drew rave reviews. So I decided to catch up with panelist Brynn Evans, a digital anthropologist and user experience consultant who is now applying her academic research on social search to real-world user experience challenges for research firm Bolt Peters. I asked Brynn to help me understand what social search is all about, and why it’s not here yet.

Samuel: I hear people using “social search” to talk about very different kinds of sites and services. What do you mean by “social search?”

Evans: It could look like the Aardvark model (two people conversing directly to get information), or it could be in a more implicit way, like how OneRiot does it. That looks like trends or popular topics that come from a group of people.

Another flavor of social search that’s particularly interesting is friend-filtered social search: when search results include information that people in your social network have shared, like blog posts, news articles and status updates. Friend-filtered social search has the potential to make the search experience much more personalized.

“Personalized” is one of those holy grails that social media likes to promise us. Is it the personalization of results that makes social search such a tough problem?

The technological challenge is how to index all of my activity, all of my friends’ activities, all of our relationships to each other, and then make sense of all that every time I perform a new search. If this is done well, I may see personalized search results based on my query and my past history matched to my friends and friends-of-friends’ interests and expertise. And since our relationships to all those people keep changing, search engines will have to construct results on the fly, which could take a long time and be computationally intensive.

Is this just a technical problem, then?

It’s also a tough problem in the social sense. I actually think the social part is a much harder problem. We all have tons of information and expertise about various topics, but in the real world we share this selectively with people. But for an online system to work, we’ll need to share a lot of information. How will we (or the system) decide what information to share with our friends? Some things you may not want to your friends to know about, and conversely, you may not want to know about your friends! If I’m searching for a divorce lawyer, for example, and you start a simultaneous search for a divorce lawyer–do we actually want to connect over our possible, impending divorces? Quite possibly not.

So the problem is that people don’t want to share all the information that social search could reveal?

There will be times where I want to keep the world from knowing I have cancer (for various reasons), but if a close friend also develops cancer, I most certainly want to connect and share any advice I can.

What are the best solutions currently available for people who want some form of social search to reflect the context of their social networks?

Unfortunately to actually have this kind of experience today, people need to be present and active on multiple social networking sites. First, the search system will need to know which friends are part of the social circle; and then the system will need to either crawl the friends’ activities or be able to reach out and ask the friend to help you.

What do you use personally?

The other day I tweeted the following:

Need a recommendation on screen recording software! ishowuHD = flaky. quicktime records keystrokes (bad). silverback = can’t start session.

I received about 20 replies from people with suggestions! But to get that result, I need to have a large enough network of people on Twitter and I need to have accrued enough good will so that they answer.

That sounds a lot easier than Googling!

Google has the potential to really bring social search to the masses. If people are still coming to Google as their go-to search source, any social feedback that will make the search more relevant will also need to appear somehow in the Google results page. Wouldn’t it be great if Google could re-rank your search results by what your friends have also viewed or commented on, and at the same time offer to ping your network on your behalf if you get stuck finding the answer you’re looking for?

Where do you think we’ll see the next leaps forward in social search?

Facebook will probably do something interesting with social search in the near future. They already integrate Bing results with Facebook searches. It’d be great to see them suggesting which friends might be knowledgeable about various search topics.

Another interesting advance would be to identify experts based on actual, recent activity on social networking sites, rather than on what people list on their profiles. Since I recently returned from a trip to South by Southwest, if you asked me a question about it now, I would be likely to provide a response. But eight months from now, if I don’t talk about it anymore in the blog-o-sphere, I have probably forgotten much of my experience or at least it’s no longer as relevant to ask me questions about it.

What other advances or solutions should we watch for?

As with all technologies, I get excited to think about cross-platform functionality. For social search, this could mean integrating my social network activity with Google (which I rely on and trust). Or it could mean integrating with my mobile phone, so that I can ask questions on-the-go and that people could track me down to get responses even if I’m away from my computer.

What workarounds should we all use until real social search is available?

Well…what workarounds do we currently use? I see people doing social searches all the time–asking a friend for help. People already use their personal networks to find information, so until the web can make this experience better for us, I’d say to cultivate your networks.

It sounds like what really matters is knowing experts on the topics I search for all the time.

Heck, you never plan to search for the reason for the crescent moon on outhouse doors–but when you need that information, it helps to be on good terms with a historian.