In June Google unveiled the +1 button, and it’s no surprise to anyone that they’re announcing this will be used as a signal for ranking websites. Google now claims the +1 button is being used on over a million sites, so clearly this is something that isn’t going away. Here’s my thoughts on this, and my viewpoint might surprise you.
The Democratic Web
From the very beginning, Google has been using us to improve their product. In fact, we’re essentially unpaid employees who test their products, give them metrics and help them improve. As a die hard fan of many of their products I have no problem with this. If my surfing habits are tracked and my personal info is used to make the product better I’m fine with it. Way back when Google started out “backrub” was a model based on producing results that other people thought were relevant, by counting how many pages were linking to a particular page.
As many of you know, in the early days it was very easy to game this algorithm, as “Googlebombing” became a phenomenon that led to the creation of the SEO industry. Thankfully things have changed considerably, and though it is much harder to be an SEO, you see a lot less spam in the results when you go to search for something. In a perfect world, this democratic model would be the silver bullet solution for everyone, because every site relies on it’s own merit to succeed, so only the good rise to the top.
The Problem with Democracy
Since we’re forced to live in a not so perfect world there are a few problems with the “democratic web”. One large problem is you end up with the problem you’re trying to avoid: people can buy search results. Here is how that works.
Google releases the +1 button, and it’s slow to take hold. Only a fraction of people use it. They’re mostly bleeding edge, early adopter types. They are the ones who try everything first, and have no problem signing their name to something. Let’s say for this example this is 1% of people (a figure I’m making up, I actually don’t know the real figure).
Website #1 has a page with very relevant, useful content about a subject. The author of the page worked very hard to provide good, accurate information about this subject, and searchers who landed on this page would have their needs filled by visiting here. The problem is, this website only gets a few hundred people a day to the site.
Website #2 is a very large tech site that gets 100,000 people a day and writes a page about the very same subject. They give a much broader view of the subject however, and offer less information about the subject. It’s essentially a 50,000 ft view of it written by an author who covers many different subjects and decides to talk about this one in an article.
After a month when all the +1 data is tallied up, searchers find website #2 at the number one spot for this subject, and find themselves going back and searching more because they didn’t get all the information they needed.
Given this information which page would rank higher? Of course the answer is the bigger site, because 1% of website #1’s traffic hit the plus 1 button, and led to 2 hits. Website #1 also only had 1% of their audience using the +1 button, and they got 1000 hits. Using this data it would seem obvious that website #2 has the better content, because 1000 people liked it as opposed to only two people liking it. But the voting was skewed because the sampling is so different.
The two pages cannot be compared equally because 99,000 people never saw website #1. You aren’t getting an exact comparison.
What this means for search results.
As I said earlier, this makes it pretty clear how you can buy search results, something Google tries very hard to avoid. It’s simple: if you have enough money for advertising you can build a lot of traffic, and a big following to get more of those 1% clicks day after day. It could be argued that the people you bring in are not yet loyal to your site and have a short attention span, but it’s unclear if that’s really the case. You could also argue that larger commercial sites do indeed have the ability to bring better content, but we know that’s not always true.
The problem Google should be concerned about is the homogenization of their results. If the same big sites are always getting the +1s and ranked up, they’ll get more traffic, and more +1 action as well. This leads to the same sites producing the same content. Google’s search results become heavily reliant on the same sites, and when they don’t deliver, Google doesn’t deliver.
This is all just my opinion about concerns I have for ranking +1 results too heavily. Knowing how Google usually works, they’ll test this heavily before implementing it completely. They’ll also figure out a way to shuffle in some little guys once in a while. I certainly hope that’s the case, considering my site is more like site #1 (the smaller traffic one) than it like Slashdot. I haven’t seen very many +1s for my pages, though I notice I get many “likes” on Stumbleupon, which seems like a more fair sampling of data. On Stumbleupon your site is displayed randomly with everyone else, so you really can get more traffic based on merit, but this is simply not possible for Google at this time.
I don’t ever expect Google to send you hundreds of thousands of random viewers just to see if they +1 your content, but I do think the current democratic web ideas do need some fine tuning before they decide this is a huge factor. If you’re one of the little guys looking to make it big with Google+ and the +1 button (they’re now integrated) then keep making great content that people will want to share. It’s still the best way to get ahead if you don’t have a huge bankroll.