Can Google’s +1 Measure Up?

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ADOTAS – Google recently launched a new +1 button feature within Google search, which is being compared with the Facebook “Like” button. This feature allows users to recommend something by clicking +1 on a webpage or ad.  These +1’s will then start appearing in the Google search results over the next few weeks.

This step represents an interesting development in the area of social search. While the primary search engines have made some strides in regard to social search integration, their efforts have not created major impact for users.

It has been over a year since Bing and Google each announced deals with Twitter to access the full “firehouse” feed of real-time tweets for inclusion within the search results. In addition, the primary search engines have developed agreements to access real-time social data from other sources, including blogs, answer sites and social networks. Most notably in Q4, Microsoft began to incorporate publicly available Facebook connection information to enhance Bing search results, such as “Liked By Your Friends” indicators and people search results.

But none if these changes have fundamentally innovated on the basic search experience. When one considers the abundance of available social data, the mainstream search engine efforts seem relatively timid. Despite Bing’s Facebook partnership, the vast majority of queries do not yield notable social data integration.  Furthermore, Bing continues to largely sequester social information within a roped-off section of the engine.

To be fair, industry leaders like Google and Bing have a lot to lose by shaking-up ranking logic with social data vs. relying on more established signals like link-based PageRank.  Social search upstarts like Topsy, which ranks real-time content based on the level of sharing and user authority, or blekko, which leverages human inputs to emphasize authoritative content, have such modest market share that they can afford to take risks.

However, the +1 feature, Google’s direct challenge to Facebook’s “Like” button, has the potential to drive major implications for consumers and advertisers.  This launch may be especially impactful from an organic search perspective, as Google will ultimately begin leveraging the +1 data to impact search results and ranking logic.

That being said, the impact of the Google +1 will be directly correlated to user adoption.  In order to see +1’s in the search results, users need to be logged into their Google Account and have their contacts updated within this environment. For this functionality to scale, users will essentially have to recreate their social network within Google.

Like other underwhelming social launches, think Wave, Hotpot and Buzz, Google will again be challenged to gain traction with the new +1 feature. The benefits of Google +1 must prove to outweigh the inconveniences if this development is to successfully build momentum with users.

Despite the obstacles, it will be necessary for Google to remain current and evolve their algorithm in light of the plethora of available social data. In addition, the quality of Google results has faced significant scrutiny over the past few months, with user complaints about the prevalence of content farms within the search results and the subsequent Google algorithm update response.

As the language of relevancy on the web increasingly evolves from links to likes, accounting for the new currency of social signals will be vital for the search giant. Google’s own research indicates that over 70% of consumer purchase decisions are influenced by reviews from friends and family.  Inasmuch, now is the time for market leaders to take bold steps with search and social integration, as peer recommendations and social graph data increasingly drive the new authority in search.

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