To understand how Google came to be the world’s most popular search engine, think of it as a giant vote counting machine. That’s why there’s so much attention these days on Google’s competition with Twitter and Facebook. They’re the new, popular ways that people are voting for things they like, casting ballots that Google can’t easily count.
Search 1.0: Counting Words On The Page
Let’s go back to the beginning of web-based search engines. When names like AltaVista and Lycos were ruled, search engines figured out what pages from across the web should rank well largely by looking at the words on the pages themselves.
I’ve referred to this as Search 1.0, and it was a system that was easy to game. Repeat the same word many times on your page, and in Search 1.0, you could improve your ranking for that word. OK, it wasn’t exactly that easy. But the main point is that publishers were largely in control of how important search engines deemed their pages to be.
Search 2.0: Counting Links & Other Off-The-Page Factors
Google ushered in what I’ve called Search 2.0, a system of ranking pages by looking at factors about the quality and content of those pages that weren’t on the pages themselves.
In particular, Google looked at how people linked to a page. A lot of links, or a few high-quality links, could help a page rank better. What people said about the page in the links themselves — the anchor text — also influenced how the page would rank.
PageRank & Links As Votes
Google’s method of counting all those links, and deciding how much credit should be given for them, is called PageRank. Google itself once described this as a vote counting exercise, saying back in 2007:
PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B.
The explanation went on to say how more than counting votes was involved:
Google looks at considerably more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; for example, it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.” Using these and other factors, Google provides its views on pages’ relative importance.Of course, important pages mean nothing to you if they don’t match your query. So, Google combines PageRank with sophisticated text-matching techniques to find pages that are both important and relevant to your search. Google goes far beyond the number of times a term appears on a page and examines all aspects of the page’s content (and the content of the pages linking to it) to determine if it’s a good match for your query.
In short, Google uses many different to decide what pages should show up in response to any given search. PageRank is one of these factors, a system of counting links as votes.
Problems With The Link-Based Election
Even though PageRank was designed to rely on the “democratic nature of the web,” as Google called it, from the beginning it already did that by counting some links as more equal than others.
There were good reasons for doing this. Just as real elections can be gamed, so can an online election based on counting links. You can stuff the virtual ballot box by voting for yourself — linking to yourself — a lot.
You can even have incorrect votes cast. For example, someone upset with a terrible company might link to that company when complaining about them in a blog post. Despite the complaint, that link is still a vote in the company’s “favor.”
As I said, Google’s ranking system (its algorithm) depends on more than link counting. Over time, Google’s algorithm has become more sophisticated in many ways. But the algorithm still depends heavily on links, so it’s prone to all the problems with link counting that I’ve named.
The Bigger Problem: Disenfranchised Masses
Beyond those problems, there’s a larger issue in considering links to be votes. Counting links disenfranchises most of the people who actually surf the web. They don’t get to cast ballots in a link-based election.
Want to vote in favor of a site you like? The only way to be absolutely positive that your vote will get counted is to run your own web site and link to the other site from one of your own web pages. For many people, just having your own web site alone is too much work, so they never vote.
But what about publishing systems like Blogger or WordPress or Tumblr? They make it so easy to create content! Yes, they do. But do they use methods like “nofollow” or redirect blocking that might prevent those links from passing credit to other sites, methods that basically prevent the link votes from being counted?
With the systems I’ve named, links do seem to pass credit. In others, it might not. But even with those that do, it’s still more work to create content about all the other web sites that you like, with links in them, as a way to vote for those sites with Google.
Think about all the places you visit on the web each day, that you find useful. Are you going to create blog posts about each of them, with links back to them? Of course not. But that also means you’re not casting votes for all the things you love.
Voting For The Masses: Social Shares
That’s where social sharing sites like Twitter or Facebook make voting so much easier. You don’t need to create a blog post about some great article you just read. Tweet it, and that’s a vote! Or, you can literally like it by clicking on a Facebook Like button. That’s another vote.
Voting this way is so much easier, enfranchises so much more of the web citizenry, than in the old system where only publishers who link get to vote. To compare it to voting rights in the US, it’s as if we’ve gone from only white men with property being able to vote to anyone of any race or gender, 18 years or older, being able to cast ballots.
But Google Can’t Count The New Votes
A victory for democracy! Not quite. The problem is that Google can’t easily count votes cast through our new social media balloting systems. All votes cast through Twitter are blocked, prevented from passing link credit. This isn’t done because of some anti-Google agenda on the part of Twitter. Rather, it’s done as part of a wholescale way of fighting potential spam.
Having said that, Google also can’t see many of the ballots cast on Twitter because of a disagreement between the companies. So much happens on Twitter that for Google to see it all, it needs to have Twitter send it a direct “feed” of activity, or something called the “Twitter firehose.” Twitter used to do this, but its deal with Google ended last year.
Google has the same problem with Facebook. It can’t keep up on all that happens there without a deal. The companies have never agreed on one.
Google+ As Google’s New Ballot Box
This leads to the importance of Google+. If people are voting in a new social way, but Google can’t see those votes, then Google needs a way for people to vote socially that it can count.
That voting system is Google+. People vote via Google+ either by sharing links through the network or by using Google +1 buttons within Google’s search results and on publisher web sites. In fact, when the Google +1 button was launched ahead of the Google+ social network, Google explicitly stressed this was a new way of helping it improve its search results.
But Google+ Votes Are Still Incomplete
Problem solved? No. While Google+ is growing, more people use the more established social networks of Twitter and Facebook and seem to share content on those networks more often. In metaphorical terms, more people cast more votes in these places than on Google+.
To counter this issue, Google seems to be doing everything it can to promote Google+ usage. New Google Accounts have Google+ enabled on them. People with Google+ profiles may get author links in Google’s search results. Journalists with Google+ profiles may get featured in Google News. And yes, interesting people on Google+ are recommended even to searchers who are signed-out of Google, perhaps one reason Lady Gaga finally joined Google+.
Google’s Balancing Act
Google’s taken plenty of flak, including from me, for seeming to favor Google+ too much. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have Google+ at all. It does need it. Having this type of voting mechanism today is absolutely essentially to its future success as a search engine, I’d say.
But as I wrote before, Google needs to find the right balance between running a search engine, which is supposed to be as inclusive as possible of all sources, with also running a social network that competes with Twitter and Facebook. It also needs to find the right balance in integrating Google+ into Google overall.
The Google+ification that’s been going on, as I like to call it, has felt like overkill lately. I feel like Google+ is being shoved in my face everywhere. Google needs the right “Goldilocks” stategy, not too much, not too little, but “just right.”
Twitter & Facebook’s Obligations?
While Google has a balancing act to maintain, Facebook and Twitter have their own responsibilities. Both have been upset by Google’s pushing of Google+ in its search results. But both, for whatever reasons, haven’t made more of their content available to Google.
The Don’t Be Evil tool made by Facebook and Twitter employees did demonstrate that Google has lots of their content already that can be used. But without direct access to the Twitter firehose, all those tweets with links have that anti-spam blocking on them. Those are votes that don’t get counted.
As for Facebook, all those links that people share with the public? Public doesn’t seem to include letting Google gather these up at all. Those are more ballots that go missing.
I think there’s a way for Facebook and Twitter to provide Google with more data in a way that helps them without harming their core business model. A Proposal For Social Network Détente is my article explaining more about this. I hope they would explore such ways, if they aren’t already. That’s because the votes people cast should be counted, even by Google.
Some Social Voting Perspective
While I do think social shares represent a better way of counting votes — and thus the future for search engines — it’s overkill to assume that Google is out of the game if it can’t eventually strike a deal with Facebook and Twitter.
For one, people have been predicting that Google’s inability to see Facebook’s social data would spell its doom for ages. Google’s not only survived but arguably has thrived.
Google’s also done this despite the fact that Bing does have social data from both Facebook and Twitter. In particular, Bing’s had personalized results, tapping into Facebook’s data, since Oct. 2010. That hasn’t seemed to have drawn anyone away from Google. Bing’s gains have largely seemed to come at Yahoo’s expense.
One reason for this is that figuring out the way to use social data to personalize results is hard. Eurekster and Yahoo discovered this back in 2004 and 2005. Bing spoke with AllThings D last week about the challenges it’s still finding. And Google, which has had socially-influenced results since Oct. 2009, is telling those critical about how it recently ramped these up as part of Search Plus Your World to hang in there, there’s still lots to improve.
Counting social activity as votes is still a brave new world for the search engines. It’s way too early to count anyone out.
The Marketer Perspective
Where’s all this leave the online marketer? If you’re still ignoring social, stop. You simply can’t.
For one, social is a huge driver or direct traffic to web sites. For another, social enhancements like author links or share counts are being integrated into the listings of search engines in various ways, which may improve clickthrough.
Beyond listings, social signals are being used to reshape the results people see. They are new votes being counted, the new link building that can lead to better rankings.
While Google may largely lack access to Facebook’s or Twitter’s data, that could change at any time. So why not build up those votes? In addition, those votes are already being counted by Bing.
As for Google+, I’m simply dumbfounded by the number of companies I’ve encountered that still do not have Google+ pages. The most common excuse seems to be a lack of resources.
Making a Google+ page is easy. Do it. Filling it with some or all of the same content you may already share on Facebook or Twitter is a nobrainer, nor should it be that time consuming.
But Google+ is here to stay. Google+ is deeply integrated into Google Search, and that’s unlikely to change. Any marketer ignoring it is missing out on a major new opportunity to be found through Google, to collect votes to help you win elections on Google.
Don’t stay out of the race, because if you do, someone else is going to win.