Is social the future of search? In late March, Google announced a new "+1" feature that allows you to endorse web pages in Google natural search results and also in Google ads. Once you enable Google +1, your search results will show a notation for any website recommended by one of your social contacts.
The Google +1 button is very similar to the simple and effective Facebook Like button. This is Google's effort to use the power of personal recommendations to judge the quality of websites. Given Google's dominance of 66 percent of the U.S. search market, the +1 button cannot be ignored if it catches on even moderately. Yet there are some serious and unresolved issues in the search giant's plans to go social.
Best-case scenario: Your friends and family are all geniuses, so your social search results will become more accurate and more credible by aligning with their views. Yet forcing users to choose between their peer-influenced rankings and those mathematically produced by Google gives the impression that Google's once-omnipotent algorithm can no longer guarantee you're getting the most relevant results.
And if your friends are morons? You're stuck with social search results that are personally relevant, but probably misguided.
For most consumers, knowing that their friends and family have "+1'd" specific products, services or brands will likely have positive impact on purchase consideration. But if your Uncle Buck hits +1 for a product that other buyers panned, will the personal connection outweigh the consensus opinion?
Again, context is key. People seek and trust online recommendations from total strangers on sites such as Yelp and Amazon, which aggregate a broad sampling of opinions and provide relative anonymity that encourages people to speak freely. The ranking of meals, books, media and travel are based on subjective experiences, which is why it helps to hear the human perspective, rather than the cold logic of a machine. Yet Google +1 could bring that crowd of competing voices to places where people don't necessarily want social input. You probably don't want your friends and family to share health-related searches, such as why your feet itch so badly.
Social search results will reward online businesses that serve up content worth clicking on. As Google has included more social network data into its search results, businesses will suffer when they have no content shared through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social networks. In their Webmaster Central +1 button FAQ, Google openly says that social recommendations will become a regular part of the signals used to judge the value of web pages.
Regardless of whether the +1 button succeeds, brands should be building more useful and interesting content to optimize their online search marketing. This is the best way to gain links to your website and the best way to gain Twitter links, Facebook Likes or +1 button recommendations.
Google has announced that the +1 button will soon appear on all Google paid ads. Danny Sullivan relates that Google has research showing that ads marked with a +1 notation get a higher click-through rate. Google ads in the right column and at the top of the search results page will have +1 buttons and show +1 data in advertising analytics. It seems unlikely that web users will recommend paid online ads.
There's been some speculation that Google +1 notations might help AdWords quality scores. Google denies this claim in the AdWords support section: "The way we measure Quality Score for your ads has not changed. We continue to use historical AdWords performance information, click-through rate (CTR), and other signals to calculate your Ad Rank and cost-per-click (CPC)." Though +1 can be applied to online ads, it seems highly unlikely that people will bother giving a thumbs up to paid advertisements that pop up in their search results. In fact, it's dubious that +1 will have much effect at all until the button migrates to websites beyond Google.
The +1 button will struggle to compete against the ease of use and environment of Facebook. When people press the Facebook Like button, their endorsement automatically appears on their Facebook page, effectively notifying their friends and family. Google endorsements, however, will only appear when they're searching for the same thing —unless they happen to check your new personal "Google Profile."
Google's inclusion of personalized recommendations from users' social networks goes against what users have come to expect from its keyword search. Google has conditioned searchers to enter any search terms and instantly receive the most relevant results. In essence, Google is the fast food drive-up window of search compared to Facebook's sit-down service. The Google +1 button is unlikely to gain widespread traction because it violates searchers' expectations for quick, relevant search results with no forethought. Google would do better to simply incorporate social network recommendations as another component of their existing search algorithm.
Google's search indexing system relies on over 200 signals from each web page to determine the relevance of each page to meet your search queries. Google's dominance of search relevance has helped it grow to 66 percent of search market share, followed by Yahoo! sites at 16.5 percent and Microsoft/Bing sites at 11.5 percent. Google fields 11 billion searches a month and its total advertising revenue reached $28 billion in 2010. With vast ad revenues at stake, Google and Bing have both noticed Facebook's 600 million users and growth to 4.7 percent of U.S. online ad revenue at $1.3 billion in 2010. Still, ad performance metrics, such as click-through rates, have been low on social network sites, suggesting that Internet users do not want to click on ads while socializing with friends and family.
To use the Google +1 system, you need to have a Google profile and be signed in to the Google network. Google has always tracked the topics you research online, but now they're explicitly letting people know about it. Maybe that's not such a good idea, particularly given the experience of Google Buzz. Google launched the social network tool Buzz in February 2010, which integrated with Google's email system and allowed users to share links from Picasa, Flickr, Google Reader, YouTube, Blogger, FriendFeed and Twitter. Buzz never achieved a strong following and faced ongoing criticism for exposing user information —privacy complaints that resulted in a recent FTC settlement.
Google +1 will significantly reduce the perceived anonymity of web searches, and could make people more cautious (and less active) in how they use Google. And it creates an obvious opening for a new competitor touting an all-anonymous search engine. Besides, who really wants to "sign in" to their search engine?
Rather than seeing Google become more like Facebook, it would be more interesting if Facebook dramatically enhanced its search function. Right now, there's no convenient way to search for information on specific topics across all your friends' pages, profiles and walls —you just have to scroll page by page. That's unfortunate. If you're searching for advice from your personal contacts, why not be able to data-mine their past comments and walls and recommendations? Wouldn't it be helpful to know if a friend bought the same model of car you're considering, or got married in the same town you're planning your big event, or has used a magic remedy that could soothe your teething baby?
Search behavior is often a tool for solving a specific need or task right now. We don't associate that with social networking, but there's an opening here if Facebook would improve its search functionality. In other words, social search could deliver significant value, but perhaps it's not Google's game to win.
Photo credit: flickr.com/angelocesare/915406810
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Engauge is a full-service marketing agency for the digital and social age. We help grow our clients' businesses by leveraging creativity and technology to connect brands and consumers through the most relevant content and channels. The proliferation of content and channel opportunities for both consumers and brands has forever changed the communications landscape. But - what haven't changed are the fundamentals of marketing: The ability to richly understand a consumer, to derive a thoughtful insight, and to create a big idea. For years, Engauge has helped lead its clients by staying true to those fundamentals, while focusing on talent, technology, innovation and building a dynamic range of capabilities - from the tried and true, to social, mobile and whatever's next. Today's marketing is assuredly more complex, but to us the premise is still quite simple: Listen to the client, listen to the consumer, and deliver big ideas at the right time and place. And, most importantly, engauge.