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Following the hype that surrounded the official Launch of Google +1 at the end of March, this post considers how it has the potential to impact search and some of the other issues surrounding it, ultimately asking if it really help increase the relevancy of search results?
What is Google +1 and how will it work?
A previous post from @JamesaChallis discussed the concept of Google +1 on its launch. To summarise, +1 is a button which will appear alongside search results and on web pages. A user will click the +1 button on a search result or on a web page as a way of saying ‘This is pretty cool’ and ‘you should check this out’. It applied to both organic and paid search results. All the user needs to do this is a Google Profile. If they are logged into Google, and one of their contacts has +1’d a page or search result, they will see the contact’s name within the +1. If the site has been +1’d by others outside their Google connections, they will simply see an aggregated number totally the number of times that site has been +1’d. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
What will it affect?…
Organic Search Results
The +1 feature does not currently affect organic search results, but that they do plan to integrate this into their algorithm in the future.
On the surface, this sounds simple enough. Searchers are providing a seal of approval to a website, which then indicates to other searchers that the site was ‘endorsed’ by them to help them make informed decisions when using search results.
The first issue with this is that the first searcher who +1’d the site may have been using it for a different need. For example, imagine someone searches for ‘blue widgets’ and +1’s a site as a result. If someone else searches for ‘red widgets’ and finds the same site, and clicks on it seeing that it has been +1’d, they may be disappointed as it may not contain ‘red widgets’ at all.
If +1 recommendations are going to affect rankings in Google’s SERP’s, they will need to be related back to the search query which lead to them being +1’d. So unless Google are planning to only show +1 recommendations which were made as a result of other queries which were the same as the new query being searched , +1’s won’t actually tell the user anything about the relevancy of a site to their search, and therefore would not be able to fairly influence rankings. With a high percentage of search queries being completely unique, this might be quite challenging to do accurately.
Endorsing Without Visiting
Logistically, a searcher being able to +1 a website from the SERP+s page does not seem sound. This effectively means that a searcher could endorse a webpage which they may not have even visited. Supposing they do visit the webpage from the search results, and decide they would like to +1 it, are they then supposed to repeat the same search to find the site within the SERPs again and then click +1?
Being able to +1 from SERPs could lead to Webmasters optimising their Meta not only to entice visits to a site, but to ask the searcher to +1 it too, here’s an example:
Koozai_Mike describes the concept of a searcher being able to +1 a site from search results as the user basically saying ‘I like your Meta!’
Similar to fake reviews, it is likely that webmasters will begin +1ing their content and pages in search results and direct from their pages, by creating fake Google profiles to appear as different users. It can only be assumed that Google has considered this and will tackle it in a similar way that fake reviews are tackled. For example by disqualifying multiple +1’s from the same IP address. Just like with fake reviews though, there are many work-arounds for this, such as using proxy servers. Perhaps Google will take into account the length of time the user spends on page when they +1 it to ensure they have genuinely engaged with the site enough to give it a deserving +1 and it has not simply been searched for and +1’d to increase the site’s reputation in the same way that fake reviews do. Even if they did take into account time on page or other traffic quality metrics, there are bound to be bots which can emulate this.
Direct Visit +1’s
Google are soon to make the +1 button available directly on web pages, so what will happen when a user goes directly to a site and decides to click the +1 button on the webpage? How will the value of this +1 influence rankings if it is not attributed to a search term? This could be one reason why Google are taking longer to launch the +1 button which will feature directly on web pages.
Google +1 may also have a big impact on personalised search results. If a user is already logged into their Google account to participate with the +1 system, they have already provided Google with a great deal of information about their search habits; however with the addition of +1, Google could also base personalised search results on what the searcher’s Google contacts have +1’d.
The next question raised as a result of +1 affecting rankings is how will new or small sites break through? Although Google claim the +1 button is not a direct response to the popularity of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, it serves as a good comparison for this example:
The Kellog’s Cereal Facebook page has 203,910 ‘Likes’. In comparison, a newer and less established cereal brand Dorset Cereals has only 5,913 ‘Likes’, as they are a much newer brand. Imagine this in the context of websites. How will new sites and less established sites break through and improve their rankings if they will naturally have fewer+1’s than well established websites?
Google are also making +1 available on AdWords ads, describing it as ‘Word of Click’.
Many of the issues discussed above about the effect on organic search are also applicable to the effect on AdWords search results. For example the issue of the user +1ing an ad but not having actually visited the site or bought the product, Ad copy may become optimised to encourage +1’s, and +1 Click fraud.
Cost Per Plus One (CPPO)?
It is unclear whether advertisers would pay for a +1 if the searcher doesn’t actually click through to the site but does still +1 it. Technically, receiving a +1 still illustrates the searcher having some level of engagement with an ad which Google could potentially charge for. As a positive for advertisers, this is another metric to gage the searchers interaction with an ad.
Quality Score and CTR
Although Google state that the +1 button will not affect Quality Score, they also say that their internal tests have suggested that having +1’s on an ad can result in a better Click through Rate (CTR). CTR is one of the primary factors which influence Quality Score, so even if having +1 recommendations does not directly influence Quality Score, having a higher CTR as a result of +1 recommendations will still indirectly increase an advertisers Quality Score.
Blending AdWords and Organic Search
Having the +1 feature on both AdWords paid results as well as organic results is arguably another step closer to blending paid search results into looking like organic search results. The ethics of this could be questionable as it makes it more difficult for unknowing Google users to distinguish results which have paid to be placed there, against those which are deemed relevant based on their content and other organic factors.
All +1’s are Public
Google states that all +1’s are public. Participating with Google +1 relies on the searcher having a Google profile. All the user’s contacts on Google (described by Google as “people who have your email address or other identifying information”) can then see all sites which they have +1’d. The issue with all Google contacts being able to see a user’s +1’d sites is that the user may use their Google account for different purposes, for example their Google Mail contacts may be for professional correspondence, whereas their Google Buzz contacts may be of a more social relationship. Not every user would want their professional contacts viewing websites they may have +1’d as a result of a social interest.
Although users can hide the +1 tab in their Google profile, their names would still appear by sites which they have +1’d in search results to all their Google contacts.
Keeping all +1’s public may help Google avoid the privacy debates that Facebook has suffered, but it could also be one of its biggest failings. Perhaps categorising Google contacts to determine who will see +1’s could be a compromise, so as not to over complicate it, whilst making it a little bit more controllable for the user.
Google claim they are not sharing the information about people who +1 a site to the site’s webmaster, however they do say that they will be providing this information in an aggregate form, for example informing webmasters that 20% of their visitors are male and from London. On a positive note for webmasters, this does provide additional information to analyse and improve a websites progress.
No real Opt-Out
If a user doesn’t want to partake in the +1 system, they can disable the feature, but they will still see aggregate numbers of +1 recommendations, just not the personal information of their contacts who have +1’d a page.
Google +1: Increasing Search Result Relevance?
+1 seems like a positive concept, however when it is considered in more depth, it leaves me wondering if it is really any different from other social concepts such as social bookmarking?
Google +1 has raised many questions which may be answered in the future as it is rolled out in more widely. The ultimate question is whether Google +1 will fulfil its aim and increase the relevance of search results for searchers.
Please feel free to join the discussion below with your ideas and responses to the Google +1 discussion. Do you think it will work?
Who knows, maybe one day we will have a +1 button on this very page!