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Why Google +1 Doesn't Add Up for Search

Why Google +1 Doesn't Add Up for Search Brian Easter
Google +1 is here and ready for you to push its button. The colorful addition to the Google family is the latest experiment in the eternal quest for higher relevance. Google knows who we are (whether through Gmail, profiles, searches, etc.). Now they want to know what we are. What intrigues us, what inspires us, but most of all what we like and would recommend for friends. Google wants all this to bring you search results socially tailored to your likings. The search giant is in a continual standoff with Facebook, who has long been an instrumental player in social search.  Without Facebook’s information to inform social search, Google is pushing instead for us to start +1ing sites as a way of saying “This is pretty cool.”

Back in January, Google restated to the world their goal of bringing a high degree of relevancy to their search results. They are focused on branding and want to be able to produce searches that are even more convenient and helpful for a huge population of users. Google +1 is yet another attempt to stamp out mechanical, inappropriate, or black hat tactics that are sublimated into standard SEO strategy. But with Google’s Farmer/Panda changes, SEO has gone from a mechanized manipulation to establishing relevance, an area of relevance that is exactly where Google +1 is supposed to fit.

The incredible part of the +1 is the inclusion of human checks in the Google search algorithm. Instead of Google’s robots as the sole determinate for ranking, real, live people will be able to have a part in determining site value. In theory, this should take pressure off of Google as being an all-powerful decider of rankings, but despite Google +1’s thoughtful inclusion of public opinion in search rankings, there is also the potential that major flaws could generate just another well-intentioned idea that fails to come to fruition.

Issues in Adoption

For Google +1 to really work and usher in search rankings by the people, for the people, it must be widely adopted. If only a minority of people use the feature, the opinions of that minority will be overly strong determinates for rankings. A minority determining results is not something that factors well into Google’s desire for relevancy. Thus, Google must make sure their +1 button is embraced by a fairly large portion of the Internet population for the button to work. Even with the initial buzz from +1’s introduction, it remains a daunting task to inspire the button’s widespread adoption. After all, what will motivate people to begin, and continue, using +1?

The general user has no real reason to start adopting Google’s +1 button. If you want to share things with friends, there are myriad social networking options already, so why choose Google? In most cases, you are only shown +1’s from your social connections, but every +1 is public so Google can occasionally show you aggregated public results. Essentially, this means that you can give and get recommendations from group of people you don’t even know. In addition, your +1 doesn’t directly improve your personal search results in a discernable manner; it serves to improve search rankings for the site. The button doesn’t function like a thumbs up or thumbs down button that tailors your results for later. Instead, Google is taking your (as well as every other Google users’) +1’s and applying them to their search algorithm. The eternal human question remains “how does that help me?” So why will users want to +1?

Think about when you share or “like” something on social networks like Facebook or Twitter. Why do you “like” it? For emotional reasons, right? Humor, awe, disdain, amazement, enlightenment - that is why you share things. Emotional connections induce sharing, but the +1 button applies to virtually the entire internet. And not everything out there is going to be emotional. Finding a helpful page on toe fungus, for instance, is not something everyone will be itching to share with the world.

Lack of Actual Relevancy

If Google’s goal is truly more relevant results pages, Google +1 might not be the best route for improvement. Google says a +1 indicates “this is pretty cool,” which clearly doesn’t translate to “this is relevant for your search.” Google is a search engine first and foremost. They have been pushing for more social influences on search, but they need to remember that just because something is socially accepted doesn’t mean it is relevant or even right (Mom taught me that). Google must keep an objective approach to search, but with +1 enabled and affecting rankings, this could prove challenging.

Google’s search ranking algorithm is obviously kept under wraps, so it’s hard to anticipate the potential +1 impact. Including a human aspect in the ranking algorithm could prove to be very risky on Google’s part. People’s opinions of what is “pretty cool” or interesting are extremely different, a potential source of frustration for people who take these recommendations and find something that they don’t like or find irrelevant. Trust of the +1 button can be destroyed very quickly if the recommendations provide results users don’t’ like.

The +1 feature also doesn’t quite apply to everything, yet, that Google does. Recommendations are appropriate for a lot; product searches and informative sites, but when you’re looking up static information or objective-based searches, recommendations might not be appropriate. You really have no idea why someone +1’d something, so distinguishing other’s thought processes and relating them to your own preferences may significantly impact the trust level associated with Google +1.

Trust is a huge issue when it comes to Google +1’s implementation. Since we don’t always know who is recommending the pages, it is hard to distinguish relevant sources. We (some of us) trust Google. Thus Google’s rankings work. It is hard to trust people we don’t know. Aggregated results of people who +1’d a page won’t show me that I should click on it per say. What if people clicked on it because it was awful or an Internet meme? Would Rebecca Black’s homepage get +1’s? How do we filter the irrelevant +1’s that we don’t care about? Hopefully Google will be able to serve as a filter, but there’s a high possibility irrelevant and inappropriate results will spiral out of control.

Threats to Businesses and Advertising

With Google +1 affecting ranking, search engine optimization tactics will be altered. A serious issue for many sites is that they may be ineligible due to content or industry to be offered a typical +1. If you have a business or product that is relatively mundane, who is going to take the time to +1 your site? If there is not incentive, then lethargy and apathy are going to cause your customer base to pass up recommending your site. They won’t +1 it, not because your site wasn’t what they were looking for, but because they simply aren’t motivated. This starves various sites of “social proof” of relevance, even if they are returning relevant results.

Controversially, AdWords ads will also be affected by +1’s. While an obvious concern for AdWords is competition spamming the +1 button to increase exposure through feigned endorsements, it’s naïve to assume that Google won’t have a system in place to combat +1 spam (i.e. having to be signed in to profiles). Another main concern for AdWords users is the distribution of +1’s. If your ad’s destination URL is different from your organic site or other landing pages, then, for the time being, the +1’s from your site won’t carry over to your ads. And if +1’s are the new determinant of ad rank, a personal recommendation on your ad will be extremely important for your advertising campaign budget and effectiveness.

Essentially, the inclusion of +1 is the incorporation of personal endorsements into your ad rankings. +1 could be both a blessing and a curse for AdWords. Seeing another person has recommended a site may dramatically increase the trust of that site, and can lead to increased clicks on an ad. These extra clicks, though, might be from misdirected impressions since the ad was originally targeted toward another user for completely different search terms. This lessens the targeting ability of the ads and can have an adverse effect of a high click through rate, but significantly lower conversion rate since the ad wasn’t entirely relevant to the users search in the first place.

And what happens when every ad has uninformative, anonymous recommendations? A +1 won’t be able to aid in your choice of an ad. Google must determine ways to filter the white noise and confusion of random +1'ers. No one benefits by having too many or possibly outdated recommendations, and without some, probably complex, safety net, +1 won’t be able to increase relevancy of ads or maintain the trust given to user endorsements.


Though Google’s intentions for the +1 button are geared towards increased relevance, the road to +1 adoption will be difficult. With possible effects on organic as well as ad rankings, Google +1 has the power to change search engine marketing as we know it and shouldn’t be ignored. While the initial launch will obviously engender flaws, hopefully Google +1 will be able to overcome the obstacles presented and integrate social search in a way that maintains Google’s objectivity and relevancy.

April Nash (Digital Marketing Specialist @ NeboWeb) and Emily McClendon (Director of SEO @ NeboWeb) are co-author's of the blog post.

As Co-Founder of Nebo, Brian Easter brings international experience to his role along with a proven track record of helping organizations reach their marketing objectives. Under his leadership, Nebo has enjoyed 12 straight years of growth, has never...

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