On March 30, Google announced “+1”, the next step in Google’s gradual social evolution. +1 is a button that appears in search results, and eventually directly on websites, that enables users to vote for a page they find useful or interesting.
+1 bears considerable similarity to the Facebook “Like”, a simple button that measures the popularity of a web page based on social voting. Like Facebook, Google hopes to build a “social graph” of +1s, using social data as an additional factor in judging page quality, and for offering information about pages that your friends and family like.
The value of +1 for Google is obvious: more data, especially real human voting, will naturally improve search quality. However, many speculate that +1 is just the first step in an expanding Google social network, that could eventually aim to compete directly with Facebook.
This wouldn’t be Google’s first social system. Over the past years, we’ve seen multiple Google social products, including Orkut, Buzz, and Wave. Compared to Facebook, Google’s social efforts seem somewhat weak; Wave was shut down, and Buzz and Orkut are nowhere near as popular as Facebook or Twitter. (Although YouTube, another Google “social” property, continues to be very strong.)
Many tech bloggers have offered opinions on +1, Google, and social. Search marketers, however, are mainly concerned with the practical implications of +1, and how this new development will impact current SEO campaigns.
The Mechanics of +1
+1 buttons will appear next to search results, and on eventually on web pages that choose to embed the button. Clicking the button will share the +1 with your social network.
At this point, Google’s definition of “social network” is becoming pretty complex. Currently, the +1 social network is made up of your Gmail & Google Talk contacts, your Google “My Contacts” contacts, and people you follow on Google Reader and Google Buzz.
The +1 social network does not currently include people you’re connected with on any non-Google websites, such as Twitter or Quora. The confusing issue is that Google’s social search feature does include these non-Google services.
- Influence the ranking of results, causing you to see things others might not, based on your social connections
- Influence the look of results, showing names of those in your social network who created, shared or now recommend a link
- Influence the look of results, showing an aggregate number of +1s from all people, not just your social network, for some links
What’s missing from this list is the effect that +1s will have on the rankings on socially-agnostic searches, from people not logged into Google accounts, or with no relevant social connections. With respect to +1s as an absolute ranking factor, Matt Cutts said, “we’ll look at it [+1s] as a potential signal to improve search quality as well”
+1 and SEO
The immediate SEO impact of +1 is obvious: Google will use +1s on search results and websites as a ranking signal. Roughly speaking, the more +1s a page gets, the better it must be, so the higher it should rank. This isn’t speculation; Google has said outright that ”+1s will be one of many signals we use to calculate organic search ranking”.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of +1 and SEO is the implied confidence Google is showing in spam detection and user identity.
The simplicity of the +1 metric has lead many SEOs to voice concerns over spam and manipulation. Some webmasters have jokingly referenced saving up hundreds of Google Accounts to farm up fake +1s. While these complaints are logical given the apparent ease of faking +1s, it is somewhat naive to assume that Google hasn’t taken these concerns into consideration.
In fact, using +1 as a ranking signal shows that Google is confident in their ability to determine a fake profile from a real one. In reality, this isn’t difficult to imagine – Google has a huge amount of data surrounding profiles – Gmail, Google Docs, search history, and much more. While it might be easy to farm up fake +1s from empty Gmail accounts, creating the appearance of a real user could be very difficult.
Another nuance to consider is the weighting of +1s. While on the surface, all +1s are equal, it is possible that behind the scenes, Google’s employing a much more complex “PeopleRank” system for weighting the quality of +1s.
With this in mind, +1s could actually be thought of as a more authoritative system than links. Links between websites, traditionally the core of search rankings, are made up of many factors that Google can’t know. While the most obvious link spam can be algorithmically detected, many links fall into a gray area where Google simply doesn’t have enough data to judge their quality. When compared to the relative opacity of links, +1s actually offer a wealth of information to Google.
Practically speaking, no revolutionary strategies for +1 optimization have yet come to light. You’ll probably want to embed +1 on your website, when it becomes available. For the moment, creative webmasters might consider meta descriptions encouraging +1s, or perhaps an Adwords +1-gathering campaign.
For SEOs who like to play fast and loose, now is as good a time as any to mass-generate Google profiles and load them up with junk data. For serious organizations, however, this strategy is definitely not recommended.
Otherwise, the same advice as always applies: create content people like so much, they want to share it. You might also consider a contest or reward for +1s. As of now, there’s no penalty for “paid +1s”.