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While social signals seem to reflect the human value of a page, they could also bring a host of potential biases and distortions.

Despite the recent Panda update, Google still has a problem separating the wheat from the chaff. The truth is that no algorithm can really know what makes one piece of content better than another, quality is human, not mathematical. So Google uses third-party social signals, and its own +1 initiative, to get a sense of what people like. 

However, social signals are only democratic. They’re don’t reflect quality, just popularity. And while they may be harder for webmasters to game, they still involve factors that could bias or distort search results. Here are six of them. 

Apathy

Even though I like a link, I might not bother to share it. (Just as I might not bother to review a book I like on Amazon, or a hotel I like on Tripadvisor).

Problem: Social signals only represent the views of those who are motivated to share,  who may not be representative. 

Reluctance

Often, I quite like something, but not enough to pin my reputation on it. 

I once Tweeted a link to ‘the top 50 album covers’ or something similar. In truth, I just thought it was OK, and possibly of interest, so I threw it out there. Someone I respected criticised it, and I realised I agreed with him, which made me feel foolish. Now I think twice before I share. 

Or maybe I’m too embarrassed to share. If I found a superlative hair-restoring treatment, would I tell the online world about it, and admit to insecurity about my male pattern baldness? (I discussed the problems for less popular or ‘distress purchase’ brands in my last post).

Problem: Social signals only represent the views of those willing to be publicly associated with a site or page.

Lack of knowledge

Not everyone knows social media well. Many people don't use it at all. Some might enjoy a piece of content, but not understand how to share it or why they should. 

Demographic variations in social-media use must mean that social signals will show a huge bias towards the young, the tech-savvy and the time-rich. So what does that imply for grey-pound brands like Saga or Werther’s Originals, given that over-65s use Twitter and Facebook less than anyone else?

Problem: Social signals only represent the views of those who are competent and confident with social media, not necessarily those best placed to judge content. 

Choice paralysis

Arguably, Google +1 adds nothing. In fact, it may even subtract from the social experience, by adding an unwanted extra option into the mix. 

Right now, most webmasters provide ‘Like’ for Facebook, ‘Tweet’ for Twitter and maybe AddThis or ShareThis for everything else. But Google +1 is too big to be sidelined, so we’ll have another sharing option appearing everywhere. 

Few people will share everything through every channel; they’ll make a choice. And it’s well known that the more choices people have, the more likely they are to fall into choice paralysis – giving up in the face of a difficult decision. Making your user think too much is never a good idea. 

Problem: More opportunities to share could mean fewer shares, even for pages that have real value. 

Conformity

You arrive at a page that you think is OK. Then you see that 10,000 people have liked it on Facebook. Does your opinion change?

The urge to follow the herd, even when the herd is wrong, is incredibly powerful. Psychologists call it the bandwagon effect. Better to roll with the crowd and share what’s already been shared than expose yourself to ridicule by tweeting some unknown link that people might not like. 

Problem: Social profile and search profile could form a positive feedback loop. High-ranking pages get shared more, so rank higher, so get shared more, so rank higher…

Prematurity

Google’s idea of including +1 buttons on search results pages is utterly perplexing. What are they thinking? What useful evaluation of a web page can I possibly make from the SERPS? Or am I, perhaps, supposed to return to my search results and vote for a page long after I clicked through to it?

However, all the sharing buttons are prone to hasty usage. It’s just too easy to click them without really thinking about the value of the page you’re on. And of course, you could easily click them without reading at all because you want to look clever or up to date, for example. 

A few careless clicks, coupled with the tendency for conformity I’ve already covered, could soon see a mediocre page gathering big props regardless of its value. How many 100-tweet links have you followed that turned out to be mediocre? (And don’t say it happened when you clicked through to this page…).

Problem: Over-encouraging people to share makes it more likely they’ll share prematurely, skewing search results. 

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Published 28 April, 2011 by Tom Albrighton

Tom Albrighton is a copywriter and contributor to Econsultancy. He blogs here and tweets here. You can also add Tom to your Google+ circles. 

16 more posts from this author

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altteam

Well, I agree with all these points.
But if you are active user of the social networks, I don't think that's true, may be partly,

over 5 years ago

Jenny Simpson

Jenny Simpson, Head of Digital PR & Content at Stickyeyes

Excellent article, I completely agree with "Even though I like a link, I might not bother to share it" point.

Not that the social share results are worthless of course, if you compare like with like (pun intended) then you can gain some perspective on the reach of your story or campaign.

I'm going to share this without any reservations.

over 5 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

I think these are very valid concerns. Incorporating social signals into the search engine algorithm can be very useful, but it can also open the floodgates for spammers. Once something is decreed an important factor, the spammers come out in droves to try and take advantage of it.

over 5 years ago

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William King

Yes these are totally true arguments. It is not necessary for any one to share what ever he likes. But If this +1 would not base on IP address, then there will definitely be spamming on every search.

over 5 years ago

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Webster

This is why social media is only a temporary supplement for faulty algorithms. Soon, our active participation will no longer be needed to produce accurate search.

This will actually improve the quality of our social media experiences tremendously.

over 5 years ago

Luke Szkudlarek

Luke Szkudlarek, Head of Digital Marketing at E-scape Interactive Limited

Great post, I completely agree this is much more complex than adding +1 button.

+1 and like buttons make us share and consume the same content. We have a situation where the majority reads a small selection of popular stories. It's like going to the BBC website and only reading the headlines.

I guess the real question is whether social search should be democratic, certainly not.

Would you like to be punished by being fed with content read by the majority!?

But, probably this is where the personal profiles, authority scores come in, which is again bound to be driven by social signals of the same majority of users.

over 5 years ago

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Matt Chandler

Regarding the Apathy statement: Isn't that true of anything though? Opinion is only ever shaped by those bothered enough to share/like/talk about it. It's the same as "history is always written by the winners". Same is true on the web.

over 5 years ago

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Dave Cable

Agree with the points made. As was seen with the initial surge on Quora with quality content, that seems to have many savvy users manipulating the platform. Just don't think google will ever be able to get it completely right and I don't think +1 has helped!

over 5 years ago

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Julie H

I absolutely agree with all 6 points. It's worrying when you do look after customer's who are not in the hip and happening sector.

Like you say what is the point of Google adding a +1 to the search results, how can you possibly rate unless you have been there, and most won't be bothered to come back afterwards and say 'that's great'

I am much more likely to avoid a page that is liked by 10,000 than enjoy it.

over 5 years ago

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Zulfiqar Deo

I think your trying to understand people using technology. This will necessary lead to gaps in your understanding. The explanations the variations between what should have happened and what actually did happen is reflection of what perspective you have.

I think if you looked into social dynamics and behavioural marketing a little more your explanations would be different for the same set of facts.

Hope this helps to highlight the long way technology companies have yet to go to more accurately explain the why of their customers behaviour.

over 5 years ago

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Nick Armstead, SEO + PPC Consultant at Orantec

What about time? even though I once "liked" something doesnt mean I like it nor would recommend it now and am I therefore supposed to go to a site I no longer like and "unlike" it? I've liked thousands of sites/pages so thats not gona happen.
I think the most important part you raise its that its only the people who can and want to go out of thier way are having an influence here and on the grand scale of things I dont think this is very representative at all.

over 5 years ago

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John MacDaniel

Some good points here. And decision making based on Social search must be made with consideration and acknowledgment to the limitations within the population of those that participate. However regarding choice paralysis if one has already made the decision to share then they will most likely choose the method of sharing that is most comfortable to them. Hence the person that prefers to tweet will most likely proceed by tweeting whether the +1 option is there or not. Where I see choice paralysis being a problem is for the newer adopter of Social Media where they are new to sharing and may be overwhelmed by the number of choices. However with the growth of users to Social still on the rise I would think that choice paralysis may set in for some, while others will take the plunge which would most likely result in an increase in overall sharing.

over 5 years ago

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Emma Hobes

This is a very good topic to be discussed, Tom. I agree with most of what you point out but my emphasis on this issue really is more on the "reluctance" part.

Here and there, we stumble upon stuff that after reading it, makes us feel "knowledgeable" about that certain issue. And so we share its link and we sometimes even put our own piece of thoughts about it. Then, more often than not (in my case anyway), people post their comments and somehow their opposing thoughts would sound better and even more "legit" than that of ours. In the end, we feel stupid for even sharing it in the first place.

Now, if I do share links and post it on my accounts, I always make sure to be neutral about it and if a flow of comments would ensue, that's the time I put more personal feelings into it.

over 5 years ago

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Tamara@Adaptive

I agree with your final two points- conformity and prematurity. I do think that in the rush to contribute, share and add value people often end up Retweeting the same things, which are often- as you say- mediocre.

However there is something to be said about the marginal few that 'feel the need to share'. These are the people whose attention brands want to get. They are the ones trolling the web for news, information and trends. They are the ones who will spread them and make them big. It only takes a few influencers to start an epidemic, and they tend to be young, they tend to be the ones who are up on the latest tools, so the fact that few are sharing is not necessarily a bad thing, because they are sharing loudly and many people can hear them.

over 5 years ago

Tim Aldiss

Tim Aldiss, Consultant/Director at ThinkSearch

Great post. Like most social-media-savvy Econsultancy readers I often forget that I am in the minority when it comes to all things social media.

However I would also suggest that your observations are true of the world today and not tomorrow.

As my ex-colleague Antony Mayfield once said when you are in the "fog of war" of the social media revolution it is easy to forget that we all have a duty to continually fight for what we believe in as evangelists and educate those around us who need to understand that active engagement is now so easy to do and so important for the collective mind and the gaining & transfer of knowledge.

One last point about your first point: "However, social signals are only democratic. They’re don’t reflect quality" ...wasn't the quality element already there in Google's algorithm?

I still believe that links, and the quality thereof, is the ace in the hole that makes Google's search miles better than Facebook's search. Being bothered to link to a piece of useful information is the vote it needs to be seen and the mark of quality that will last.

over 5 years ago

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Malcolm

Great post. I fear Google's new found (forced?) love of social media will leave the algorithm open to manipulation by 'those in the know' and not the day to day users - resulting in a farcical user experience.

over 5 years ago

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steve bulk

Its been a year now and still Google's results seem poor in relation to other search engines. i've started to use Bing now, jst seems a clearer less messy sort of page.

over 4 years ago

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