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that the +1 button won’t factor into search engine results, until an article was published by Forbes, and then unpublished, only to resurface again on the Raven Blog.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.
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.