Google’s “Fine-Tuned” Results
People love Google — even if Tom Anderson doesn’t think so. Everyone knows if you have a question about something, “Google it”. Their simplistic, no nonsense homepage won people over at a time when we were clawing our way through Yahoo. And while I would agree, Google is increasing it’s appeal overall with the addition of Google Plus, adding too many features too rapidly and flooding users with changes can be a big turn off.
For those of you who don’t know, Google Plus is Google’s social media network that rolled out with the “+1″ button just over a month ago. Plus One is often compared to the Facebook “like” button. Conceptually, +1 is best assimilated to a vote. In other words, to “+1″ something is to give it one vote.
That vote, or rather, the votes of your social connections are now used as an additional factor in Google’s search results. Google says “the beauty of +1’s is their relevance—you get the right recommendations (because they come from people who matter to you), at the right time”. I’m not sure this is a true statement — at least not for me.
The Plus One (+1) Button Could Use Some Clarity
There are various versions of social media “I-support-this” buttons across the web. The concept of incorporating a person’s interest (which are translated from clicking a “support” button) into search results isn’t new. Unfortunately, the ambiguity of +1, what +1 means to each user and how that user’s +1s are weighted and applied still needs some ironing out. Bradley Horowitz, a Google Social Executive, gives an interview in Mercury News:
“What needs are unmet for users? That was sort of our guiding principle, not some great insight that we had sitting up in an ivory tower, but sort of getting down from the ivory tower and talking to users and hearing their pain points. What we found was that sharing was fundamentally broken on the Net. It’s not that there weren’t a million ways to share; it’s that there were a million ways to share. They weren’t coherent.”
While Google’s aim is to solve a problem with +1, it would seem they have also acquired an additional set of complexities that may be pushing them backwards instead of forwards — particularly when it comes to search results.
There has been a fair amount of discussion on Google Plus about how the Plus One button has a less juvenile tone than Facebook’s “like”. Plus One in and of itself is more ambiguous and therefore allows more leeway to interpretation when you show your support for a post. While “+1″ does clear up some linguistic issues the Facebook “like” button faces, how and where +1s count — the public visibility of the Plus One — is still a bit disjointed.
People who know me will tell you I am a Facebook-aholic. I post links faster than this guy can shoot. I am a news junkie. Yes, like my profile says, I have to read everything on the internet. (Ok, so don’t hold me to this.) When it comes to news gathering I rely heavily on social media and use search as needed to clarify topics.
Why are my methods of news gathering important? Because I, like a lot of other people, depend on links posted inside of social media for news and updates. I find it’s faster than waiting for the long turn around time of Television. Unfortunately however, when you +1 an article from inside of Google Plus, that +1 seems to go down a black hole. Remind you of anything?
If you want a +1 to count as a vote in search rankings visible in your friends’ search results, you must+1 on Google’s search result page or directly on the article’s website. Because of the nature of Google’s circles, Google inherently can’t count plus one’s inside of Google Plus. Plus One’s from inside of Google Plus, even if they are public, are only visible on that post. And, if that post is private or posted to someone’s circle, the plus one is only visible to people privy to see that post.
Now, partly this works this way because Google can’t count those internal +1s in search results without publicly revealing some members of the original poster’s circle.
What we currently have is a dichotomy of sorts — two buttons both called +1. One button inside of Google Plus to show support and one button outside of Google Plus that counts towards rank in search results.
For me this is a two fold problem: 1) it prevents clarity and 2) it eliminates ease of use.
Brightedge data says, “less than 50% of the top 10000 websites have links to either of the two major social networks (Facebook and Twitter) on their front pages”. If many websites don’t already include two widely popular services, why would they now add a +1 button? If a site doesn’t have a +1 button and I want to make sure a particular webpage gets my “vote”, I would have to search for the article on Google and then Plus One it.
I have had this happen on several occasions already. For example, today I read this great article and shared it to both Google Plus and Facebook. But, unfortunately it will likely go without many +1 “votes” because NPR blogs doesn’t have a +1 button on the page anywhere to be found. I had to copy the title and search in Google for the article just so I could +1 it — that’s a lot of dedication.
Google could perhaps count +1s for articles publicly shared through Google Plus. But, adding a third contingency, one that makes +1s on public posts inside of Google Plus count towards search result ranking – will just be confuse the general public as to which +1s are public and which one’s are private.
Wait, Who Are Those People?
My second largest problem with the new Google +1 Button has to do with how Google is analyzing my social connections.
I want to be clear that I tred lightly on the subject as I do not write algorithms but I recognize the complexity in doing so. Please bear with me because some of these concepts are as clear as mud (hey, I’m a writer, not a mathematician.)
When I search, it is for the purpose of uncovering new, unknown (to me), hard-to-discover information about a subject. I would say I use Google’s search engine at least 15 to 20 times a day, maybe more if I am actively engaged in a topic. I would classify myself as a heavy user.
When Google Plus first launched I haphazardly clicked +1 on tons of articles every time I searched. But, as I researched for my last article, the same tech me-too articles were poping up over and over in my results. I would try to re-phrase my query — no luck. Even worse still, my own previous articles were coming up in the search results — my articles I had +1ed on my website.
Huh? I was now recommending me to myself. Certainly my own website was not new information to me. And, certainly these new results were not helping me to expand my thoughts or references.
While this is an issue in and of itself — a problem that will probably always be an issue for journalist and writers (particularly ones for large or popular publications) when they research. For me however, there are larger problems with who (and how) Google Plus has integrated social recommendations into my search results. This method of mapping my social contacts started well over a year ago and and was also, at least for a while, integrating Twitter.
When I signed up for Google Plus one of the first things that became apparent was how much of a mess my Google contacts were. The friend suggestions on G+ would recommend the same people over and over even though some of them I had already added to circles. I would delete the recommendations but names would reappear because some people had multiple email addresses in my contact list with slight variations in their names. I went through my contacts and cleaned them up shortly there after.
I examined my social connections here and discovered a great deal of my secondary connections stem from two primary contacts. I am connected with these two people through two locations — an old email group from a film I made 5 years ago and on Twitter.
The list of secondary connections connected back to these two individuals is vast. And, the more I dug around, a few of these secondary “connections”, as Google calls them, also connect back to some of my other primary contacts. (It’s a small world after all)
Confused? Me too.
Basically, to put it plainly, the overlapping and interweaving of connections looks, at least to Google, like I have more of an interaction with these two particular people than I actually do. Are these individuals (and now their +1s) somehow given more weight when determining my search results? And, does an extensive list of secondary connections give the primary connection more weight or does it stay same? Frankly, I don’t want recommendations from people I barely know that once-upon-a-time I worked with.
Does everyone I circle affect my search results?
Over the past couple of weeks I have seen a lot of random faces under my first few listings of my Google searches. At first I didn’t pay much attention, but after a while, I thought “wait, who are these people?”
In my enthusiasm to use G-Plus, and considering I didn’t actually know anyone on Google Plus, I added a bunch of strangers to my circles — people with whom I wish to network but hardly the people I want “recommendations” from in my searches.
How am I supposed to delineate what a +1 means to all these people I barely know? Are they +1ing the article because they like it, because they think the subject is good, the content is good, or the comments are good? Are they a frequent +1-er or are they more selective?
To complicate the situation further, I have several very close friends that only use Facebook to send messages. I have no email in my contacts for them even though I communicate with them almost daily. Of course, these people have no G+ account or Gmail for that matter. And, I don’t have my Facebook account connected to my Google account. To Google it would appear that I have no relationship with these individuals. Unfortunately, these are the people who’s opinions — their +1s — I would care most about in my search results.
These are a big barriers to cross — acquaintances versus friends versus family versus people you only know online. What a complex and slippery slope to navigate. I am sure there would be ways to alter my contacts in Gmail to essentially “trick” Google to better understand my social connections, but am I really willing to go to all that trouble?
In The Politics of Search: A Decade of Retrospective Laura A. Granka states “on average, three to four results are scanned” on the first page of search results. If people are only looking at the first few results and those are ones “recommended” — +1ed — by other users, searchers may never see the pages that don’t win the +1 popularity contest. In fact, for the past few weeks, because I have been so enthusiastic to try Google Plus, I believe my results have suffered — showing me that Pete Cashmore recommends Mashable, I hardly call that relevant.
In an interview with Mercury News mentioned above Google Execs had this to say:
A Gundotra: There is a grand plan to all this. That’s why we called it the Google+ Project. But as we unveil a piece at a time, it becomes more clear, the light gets brighter as we get to the dawn.
Horowitz: With the +1 widget as you see it on publisher sites and in Google search right now, the lights are not all the way on. There’s more to come. Watch that space. It will become increasing clear the value that gesture will provide to users, publishers and the ecosystem.
While I can appreciate that Google Plus is still just a project in its infancy, as a loyal Google fan, I am finding it hard to ‘wait-it-out’ for a promise of an even more succinct search engine. Google, up until now, has been pretty damn good. And while I can never know how many times in the past year that Google has used my social connections for my results that could have been better; I do know going forward I will be cautious about the assumption that Google just ‘has’ the answers.