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Does the Google +1 Button Signal the End of “Don’t Be Evil”?

When Google rolled out the +1 button it seemed innocuous enough: it allows users to find sites, articles, or videos that their friends like, thus making the web a more social experience. However since its launch, there’s been a widespread brouhaha at the internet marketing water coolers about whether or not its use would influence search results.

Although the popular opinion is a resounding “yes”, we were assured by those in charge that this button was not intended to game search engine rankings… until it was. Google then changed its public position and said that it was an option they were looking at to improve search quality. Said Google: “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.”

Indeed. I suppose what we’re all waiting to find out is 1) whether professional SEO services can use +1 to game the system and 2) how big of a factor is this going to be in future search results?

This leads us to the unfair competitive advantage argument made by many sites — Yelp being the most noticeable of the bunch– that Google will move sites up or down in search rankings for its own benefit.

Yelp, as you may remember, was in buyout talks with Google almost two years ago. After the negotiations broke down, Google launched Google Places. Yelp now argues that Google Search forced Yelp results further down the page or off the first page completely in favor of Places. Whether or not this proves out remains to be seen, but it does bring up an interesting point. As this article at SEOBook does a great job of detailing, Google is dominating the front page for many search terms by displaying their own services as relevant results. YouTube, Books, Google Ads, Places, Android Market links, Chrome extensions, etc. all are featured prominently on page 1 for many search terms. This is no doubt the focus of the Google anti-trust hearings. Google will have to convince regulators that positioning its own sites ahead of competing sites is both beneficial to its users and completely natural placement rather than artificial manipulation of the results.

But wait… there’s more…

Google announced that the +1 button won’t factor into search engine results, until an article was published by Forbes, and then unpublished, only to resurface again on the Raven Blog. The Forbes article, titled: “Stick Google Plus Buttons On Your Pages, Or Your Search Traffic Dies,” was a summary of a meeting between reporter Kashmir Hill and the Google ads team.

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The meeting was to detail the unveiling of the new button as well as provide insight on its functionality. Kashmir documented the following snippet from their conversation: The Google team was asked, “Does the new recommendation system factor universally or just amongst Google + friends?” Answer: “Universal.”

Later in the exchange Kashmir asked: “So if Forbes doesn’t put +1 buttons on its pages, it will suffer in search rankings?” The Google team responded that they wouldn’t phrase it that way, but basically yes.

It’s clear to me that the future of search is going to be a social affair. The only question is, how heavily does Google, Google + and the +1 button skew the game? Is this the beginning of the slide away from the famous “Don’t be Evil” slogan by crushing sites that compete with theirs? Will this eventually be the Google thorn in Facebook’s foot? Sound off below and let us know what you think of the future of search, and what Google will look like.

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Bryan Clark has had work featured on Problogger.net and Enterpreneurs-Journey.com as well as offline publications such as The Chicago Tribune and USA Today. He's been quoted in the Guardian UK and spoken on panels at conferences across the country on blogging and social media.
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21 thoughts on “Does the Google +1 Button Signal the End of “Don’t Be Evil”?

  1. I’m torn…Google could shy away from “Don’t be Evil” and absolutely crush anyone (just with their search market share alone). On the other hand, I appreciate them doing the right thing…but the line is so fine and due to their size, I’m sure it’s very easy to step across it without even noticing.

    Screw it, let’s just go back to AOL.

  2. I’m not sure if Google’s DDont Be EvilD mantra will be soiled in any way by Google adding the +1 button as a statistical agregator. Noone said anything like this about Google Analytics, which provided all traffic data to not only the site operators but to Google proper to use as data to run through the search algorythm. Google used the Facebook Like button data (it clearly shows in the clear how many people “like”d any page containing the button. And we seem to forget that Google really isn’t a DsearchD company…Google is an Advertising company who’s main vector of market penetration is their search product. Google’s +1 button merely increases the data collection available and will probably have no greater effect on the prioritization of a site in the search list than the Facebook Like button did.

    1. The problem with the +1 system is that it’s easy to game. There are already services popping up that charge about 20 cents for a +1. I don’t know that this will be a huge problem, as I can’t picture this being a huge part of the algorithm in the future. A piece, perhaps, but one of many.

      1. Why do you say Google +1 is easy to game? Have you tested it?

        Google +1 can be EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to game – and that’s what I think Google is on to. Think about all the data Google is collecting about you. Even for external Twitter they have ways to determine the authority of a user – and now think how much more they know about people who own their very own Google accounts.

        With Google account integration occurring over all of their products they know everything – they know your e-mails, they know how many friends you have, how long have you been a Google account user, do you use it daily, how many services are you using, what documents you have – ALL of this indicates who you are.

        Let’s give you an example – I am a keen fan of Google, had my Gmail account for 7 years now, am actively using Docs. I’m an SEO myself, so I store a lot of documents SEO related, I read blogs and sites related to SEO, I even have my very own site about SEO which is connected to Analytics. I have a Twitter channel and Facebook fanpage going by the same names, also giving signals about my site and what I write about. And on top of that I have a Google+ account where I have a ton of friends from the tech industry + I am following a couple of SEO blog stars there as well. Oh, and I am using Google Reader to collect SEO related feeds.

        Now would you say Google ignores this information and only counts the number of +1′s?

        Over the last year they made over 500 enhancements to their search algorithms, I think they are far smarter than that. In fact, I think Google+ and +1 button are an attempt to severely hit black-hats and webspammers, because with growing popularity and product integration Google will have all of the social signals it now lacks to judge whether a specific site should be given authority or not.

  3. I don’t think Google is compromising their “Don’t Be Evil” mantra by adding a +1 button to the many analytic gathering sources already available. The +1 button will probably hold no more weight than the Facebook Like button. And as far as Google having their properties as the highest listed resources come up in search, the algorithm is set up to provide the Best results…not the least monopolistic ones. If Google’s products truly are the best result for that search, why shouldn’t Google allow that to show. And I think people have a wrong impression about Google….It is not a search company who have ads, it’s an Ad company running a search engine. By that definition, Google is doing exactly what it should as a business.

    1. It’s a fine line. Maybe Google products are the best, but maybe Yelp had a point when it said that Google was bullying them off the home page of the results when it launched Places.

    1. When Google IPO’d their motto went from “Don’t Be Evil” to “Maximize Shareholder Value.” Google does a lot of good things and they make a lot of awesome products but they are not the same company they use to be.

  4. Seemed obvious to me that the +1 button would eventually factor in… but they’ll definitely have to be careful about how it’s weighted. It’s a lot easier for a company to get a lot of “likes” or “+1s” than it is to get links.

    1. This is true. The +1′s also don’t hold the authority that links do. Anyone can click the +1 button but not everyone can get a link on an authoritative site.

  5. To be honest, I think Google’s monopolistic progression towards keeping more and more of the search traffic for themselves is a bigger threat to the Don’t Be Evil motto than +1 is.

    Google Plus has seen huge numbers of people join it, but I have hardly used it since the day I signed up and I can introduce you to dozens if not hundreds of people just like me. The only way +1 is going to be a viable ranking factor (even a small one) is if +1′ing something becomes as mainstream as liking or tweeting it.

  6. I think Ben pretty much nailed it there. +1 is a high priority Google experiment like so many others before it.

    With regards to gaming the system surely the data held on the person making the +1 allows for an algorithmic credibility assessment? I mean, you can buy links for peanuts but it does not mean they are working!

  7. i just dont use the button – i just want search results – concise and cache to the terms or words i’m putting in – so since google has put their cache function in that lame popout window on their search page – i’ve just started using GIGABLAST – the cache function is a clean hit/click target and its great!
    feels like the OLD google – and gigablast says its green??
    LOL – ok – thats cool – so even more “no evil” – lol -

  8. oh and PS –

    i dont think that popout visual thingy that google’s got now on its search results is entirely a bad thing – but by taking the cache function and putting it in there and thus slowing down the search for even a few seconds is a bitch! and sometimes the page won’t load now with the highlighted search words – dont know why – just doesnt all the time – must be a glitch with the search “fit” or something – and so – in the end – its made it an even MORE time consuming waste of “search grind time” –

    i think google has hired the guy that coke did – u know – the idiot that came up with the NEW COKE idea!!

  9. I completely agree with @Matthew McGee on this one. I don’t believe there’s any sense saying the Google + 1 button will soil Google’s “Do No Evil” reputation in any way. It’s just a signal much like the Facebook Like button is a signal to determine rank and relevance. If people are abusing it, I’m sure they’ll find a way to curb such abuse. The reflection will be on the unscrupulous people who abuse it in order to game the system, not on Google.

  10. For me it is clear, G puts its products in the first place and not 100% clear that their products are essential for users, there may be products of sufficient quality to satisfy the user, but G prefers to put its products. For me it is a test to that philosophy: “do not be evil” does not exist

  11. Maybe what Google wanna say is that +1 related data is considered in ranking. It is not because you put a +1 button that your site being favored, what really make sense is data. If your site cannot provide this kind of data, Google would give you a zero in this part.

    THERE’S NOTHING ABOUT EVIL. :/

  12. The +1 button will to hold a proportionate amount of weight on search as Google Plus does on the social media landscape as a whole. Google’s advertising network is built on the value that it delivers to it’s search users. It would be foolish for them to inflate the value of +1′s in their algorithm, sending the wrong signals for ranking and ultimately devaluing their results. Before +1′s can make a sustainable impact, Google Plus will have to.