It had to happen. The search behemoth has revealed plans to roll out ‘+1’, the Google equivalent of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button.

Google’s intentions are clear. It wants to work social signals into its algorithm to a) reduce spam, and b) deliver increasingly personalised results.

The +1 button will appear alongside search results and – in time – on websites. 

Here’s what it looks like:

Google +1 - before the click

And after the click:

Google +1 - after the click

Google really needs to make more sense of the social graph in order to optimise +1. If it manages to acquire Twitter in the coming months then, as far as I’m concerned, +1 could be a great success. It tantalisingly suggests that it “may” attempt a deeper integration with Twitter:

Soon we may also incorporate other signals, such as your connections on sites like Twitter, to ensure your recommendations are as relevant as possible.”

User control is the key. The algorithm can only do so much, and Google would be foolish to resort to guesswork when determining which networks to listen to. It needs to ask the right questions…

Reading the right smoke signals 

Here’s the key problem that Google has to contend with: everybody has different preferences when it comes to social networks. In order to improve relevance, Google needs to figure out which is your most relevant social network. It may not be the same as mine. We all use them differently.

Think about it and ask yourself which social platform you would trust to influence the search results that Google presents to you? For me, it is definitely my Twitter network. By following people on Twitter I am implicitly recommending them (even the weirdos) and filing them under the “interesting” label. They talk about things and share links relevant to my interests. They give good tweet, if you will. And I’d be happy for Google to use their +1s to improve my search results.

The same cannot be said of my other networks. For example, my Google ‘circle’ contains many dozens of random PR contacts (who aren’t the same as the PR folks I follow on Twitter). Just because I might have emailed somebody a few times doesn’t mean I will trust their judgement (which is ultimately a byword for ‘+1’), or share the same interests. 

Similarly, Facebook is no good for me either, as a) I don’t use it much and b) my Facebook network is by and large limited to old friends and family.

Unless Google can figure out which of my social networks to trust it will be playing with fire, as far the SERPs are concerned. It needs to ask the question, and it needs to expand the range of available data sources / networks that it monitors.

Why Google could win

Google pays Twitter an eight-figure sum to access the data firehose and it does a far better job than Twitter in certain areas, such as search. Google Realtime is a treat, relative to Twitter’s underperforming and highly restrictive search tool. It knows how to work with data and how to build tools that extend and enhance the data. 

I still think that it makes a lot of sense for Google to buy Twitter but even if it doesn’t, it can use the Twitter API / firehose to really make sense of people’s networks. Unless Facebook buys it, in which case all bets are off. 

Whether Google can or will access personal networks on Facebook remains to be seen. The API allows for much insight into personal networks, but even if the user gives permission I have a strong suspicion that Facebook might not. Does it currently work with Facebook data? I’m not convinced that it does. It seems like there’s a bit of a cold war going on between these two heavyweights right now.

And what of those people who don’t use Twitter and Facebook. They do exist! And what of the niche networks? What of the true social ‘media’ sites like Reddit? Google might need to spread its wings beyond the obvious candidates.

There’s a much bigger picture, I think, in terms of how Google will look at +1 data. Those low-rent sites that the Panda update didn’t quite deal with may struggle to maintain first page listings, in the face of +1 activity on quality sites. This could become the biggest multiple choice A/B test in search history. Surely those sites that attract lots of +1 clicks could ultimately outrank those that don’t, even when personalised search is turned off / people aren’t logged in?

What are the search experts saying?

I noticed the +1 news break last night, since when many search experts have waded into the fray to make sense of it. The joy of being relatively late to the party is that I can now link to them…

Malcolm Coles wonders about the mechanics of the user interface. ‘What normal person would ever use +1?’, he asks.

Danny Sullivan provides the usual comprehensive breakdown of +1 and points out why it matters to Adwords advertisers.

Tom Critchlow points out the social signals are already well correlated with search rankings, and also that +1 will be hard to game.

Steak Digital thinks that big brands will win big. I personally think that any brand – big or small – with a strong community is well positioned to do well, once +1 is rolled out worldwide.

Peter Young from Brilliant Media reckons that Google is “trying to force a community”, and that +1 is a very different beast from Facebook ‘likes’, which is anchored around an existing social network.

Joanna Butler just wants Google to be impartial, and she’s not sure that +1 is going to help on that score.

What do you make of +1? Me too? Great idea? A statement of intent? 
[Images via the Official Google Blog]