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Google explores re-ranking search results using +1 button data

If Google's search results depend on the +1 button, there will be increased pressure on websites to add that capability.
If Google's search results depend on the +1 button, there will be increased pressure on websites to add that capability.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Move would bring Google's search engine into the social networking era
  • Spokesman says company will be starting carefully and learning how signals are related to quality
  • Google under scrutiny from regulators over complaints that search results favor its own products

(WIRED) -- Google is making plans to turn its +1 button into a crowdsourcing tool that helps it re-order search results and fight web spam.

While not surprising, the move would bring Google's search engine into the social networking era, while simultaneously creating a new avenue for blackhats to manipulate search results and potentially incurring the wrath of trust-busting authorities.

Google confirmed its plans in an e-mail to Wired.com.

"Google will study the clicks on +1 buttons as a signal that influences the ranking and appearance of websites in search results," a spokesman wrote. "The purpose of any ranking signal is to improve overall search quality. For +1's and other social ranking signals, as with any new ranking signal, we'll be starting carefully and learning how those signals are related to quality."

But these plans are a touchy subject for the search giant, especially given the scrutiny that Google is under from regulators in Washington and Europe over complaints that the company's results favor its own products over those of other companies.

As if to underscore that point, Google prefaced its admission of the +1 search integration project to Wired.com with a statement downplaying its potential significance: "There are more than 200 signals that we use to determine the rank of a website, and last year we made more than 500 improvements to the algorithm."

Introduced in March, the +1 sharing button debuted with little incentive for web surfers to click on it. If you +1-ed a story on a website that embedded the button, your profile picture would display next to the URL when a friend of yours ran a search with results that included that URL.

WIRED: Google+ button lets you share, finally

But last week, the button entered adolescence, and can now be used to post stories to friends and followers on Google+, much as the Like button functions for Facebook.

So the next step of using what people are liking, sharing and buzzing about online to rearrange search results is obvious enough.

Google dipped its toe into these waters with Twitter by licensing its stream of Tweets, but that agreement ended before Google got so far as to figure out how to do more with the fire hose of real-time information than just decorate pre-computed search results with Tweeters' profile pictures.

And as for Facebook? Google would love to get at its data -- the way that Bing is already -- but the two companies go together like toothpaste and orange juice. Facebook will likely never let Google anywhere near its data stream, which meant that Google had to build in its own social network.

But therein lies the rub. If Google's search results become heavily dependent on social signals from Google+, then there's going to be heavy pressure on the net's websites to embed the Google+ button.

And depending on where you work -- say, Facebook or the Justice Department -- that could look like Google is unfairly using its search engine might to boost its Facebook alternative.

That might explain why Forbes killed a story by Kashmir Hill entitled "Stick Google Plus Buttons On Your Pages, Or Your Search Traffic Suffers" which was seemingly based on information from a meeting with Google ad representatives. On August 18, Hill wrote, "the message in this meeting was clear: "Put a Plus One button on your pages or your search traffic will suffer."

Hill followed up with Google's press team. which gave Hill the same carefully couched answer it gave Wired.

But the story quickly disappeared from Forbes' website and from the Google cache, though it was noticed and saved by the Raven Tools SEO blog.

One guesses the tone of the post -- and its headline -- rankled someone somewhere.

Forbes, Hill and Google all declined to talk on the record about the post that disappeared into the memory hole.

WIRED: How Facebook could beat Google and win the net

That silence says as much as you need to know about the touchiness involved in integrating a Google +1 button with Google's search box.

But Google's biggest weakness is the possibility that someone will figure out how to build a better search engine -- and there's many who bet the way to do that is to make search involve more of a human touch and less of a machine's.

indeed, Google's interest in incorporating +1s into its search ranking algorithm might also explain Google's hard line position in the so-called Nym wars. Google is being adamant that users of its new social networking tool use their real names. In its zeal to root out fakers and people using pseudonyms, Google has deleted legitimate profiles and raised the ire of those who defend the need for pseudonyms on the internet's identity platforms.

But if Google's going to start using those +1 votes, the company is virtually inviting the world's spammers and blackhat SEO magicians to flood its social networking system with fake profiles and fake votes -- potentially ruining it and possibly making the problem of search spam even worse.

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