Insights & Thoughts On Google’s +1 Feature & The Gamesmanship of Search Marketing

Chess piecesIn my last post, I alluded to Google’s +1 service as part of the search engine’s attempt to become social. While that post was primarily meant to briefly call out +1, the more that I thought about it, the more it seemed that it should be its own post. Why? Because there are some issues at play with +1 that people might want to be aware of that I don’t think have been answered by Google…yet.

For those of you that don’t know, Google announced on March 30, that it was releasing this new “Like” button for their search results that they’re calling +1. This opens up a whole new approach towards the industry of search marketing and could potentially have some interesting impact on how you can find relevant content from your friends. In the short term, does this constitute a social strategy? Not necessarily, but in the long term there could be some good consequences or some backlash, depending on how Google treats the feedback.

It’s important to note that this is not necessarily a criticism of Google’s service, but a glance at how it could affect the company, businesses and individuals that use the search engine and its subsidiary services (e.g. GMail, Google Talk, Wave, Buzz, Docs, and the App Marketplace).

Another attempt at the semantic web

We thought Bing would be the first one to bring us the semantic web – content that would be actually relevant for our needs without us having to sort through pages and pages of useless and junk content and Microsoft even put out television commercials saying as much. But now with +1, is this Google’s way of helping us filter through the content by having our friends, or at least those we associate with using our Google accounts, helping to create the semantic web? Will we be more inclined to click on a link on something relating to, say, cloud computing, if we know that at least a couple of friends have indicated that they like it? For all that we know so far, it seems that it will show you that X number of people have “+1’ed” it, and these people don’t need to be friends or followers of your Google profile. Does this now allow us to determine what becomes more relevant to our needs and can this be gamed so that more people think an article on the history of the Internet is more believable on Wired versus than on Wikipedia or even the Encyclopedia Brittanica?

SEO games could be played

Google’s algorithm currently makes it somewhat difficult to “game” the way our rankings are made. In fact, true SEO tactics are probably the best way to increase your page rank for various topics. Nevertheless, technology is constantly evolving and the so-called Black Hat SEO experts will find a way to manipulate the rankings. Google rep Jim Prosser has told Mashable that the +1 system will not affect page rankings for sites, but in theory they very well could. The amount of +1s that a particular article/site could receive may alter the way that we perceive SEO tactics moving forward. Just imagine that if Google was to reserves course on allowing +1s to play a role in how pages were ranked. All that content producers would need to do is to have a +1 button appear anywhere on their site and actively encourage visitors to click on it, thereby raising their prominence on the site. And just because Google has said it can’t be done doesn’t mean that it won’t happen – the possibility for this does exist.

Advertising enhancements for the businesses

One possible positive approach for having +1 running is to benefit advertisers. It does seem that Google AdWords may have just become a bit more targeted and that it will benefit businesses who are often trying to put more than just a demographic to the people who come to their site. I think that Shane Barnhill (@shanebarnhill) says it best in his post:

At launch, +1 buttons are active for both search results and advertisements. While only a small percentage of people are likely to +1 advertisements (explicit ad feedback), this model is not without precedent and relative success. On the implicit end, Google can target individual interests and fine-tune the ads that are served to a specific individual by using data from his/her +1 history. This approach mimics Facebook’s ad model, and it represents a mechanism for improving Google’s AdSense platform (and — Bingo — increasing advertising revenues).

Mr. Barnhill is correct that +1 allows advertisers to fine-tune their ads and can really figure out a bit more about what would be of interest to them. If they become heavy users of their Google profile, then Google AdWords might be able to be not only focused on keywords that they searched for or what content is in their GMail inbox, but their +1 behavior. And this tertiary approach may just get the ads targeted towards the granular level and become more personalized – what consumers might want instead of seeing an ad for alcohol bulk purchases when they’re really looking at alcohol rehab program solicitations (an awkward example, I know, but probably one that gets the point across).

Open versus Closed

Could +1 be as scalable as Facebook’s “Like” button and have it placed on various OTHER networks? It might not be a bad idea even though Google has indicated that we won’t see this for a while. But for one of the largest websites on the Internet, it would probably be beneficial for them to find a way to tie everything back into their system with the +1 button and encourage people to leverage their Google profile. I’m willing to bet that quite a bit of people have a Google account either in the form of a Google Doc account or GMail address and therefore already has a Google Account.  Imagine then that if millions of people begin to +1 their favorite content, if you’re doing a search for something relating to the recent news about Twitter’s decision to remain in San Francisco, the number of people who +1 articles either from various places like the New York Times, Quora, Facebook or elsewhere can be tabulated and show you which article is most interesting and possibly more “credible”.

In an article by David Berkowitz (@dberkowitz) of 360i on Mashable, he opines that the one thing that Google’s +1 system is currently missing is Facebook. In fact, Mr. Berkowitz has said that Google will be missing the boat unless they follow Facebook’s behavior – after all, we’re already accustomed/brainwashed into “liking” something on Facebook. It’s pretty easy to do – just click the button. But with +1, we’re not trained or even noticing that within the Google search results. It’s more in a closed system right now and well hidden away from people because they’re not really actively promoting it to the world. In fact, it’s an “experiment” so who knows how this will catch on.

So there you have it, we know that +1 is out there and it has some interesting ideas along with advantages and disadvantages. I think that while it’s a good attempt, we must (as Mr. Barnhill says in his post) “let it breathe” and see what possibilities this product has. Only time will tell, I suppose.

Now who’s with me?

Photo credit: claudmey / sxc.hu

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the stories of the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently the Technology Editor at Flipboard, where he observes what's happening in the space while also identifying new topics of interest. In addition, he co-hosts the weekly internet show "The Created Economy," which focuses on what's happening to creators and influencers. Previously, he was a reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding. Ken also has a newsletter you should also subscribe to called "Filed."