Google’s integration of social recommendations into its search results, rolled out Wednesday, could have a significant impact on the way publishers work to attract Web visitors.
Google’s new +1 initiative places what amounts to a “like” button next to each of its search results. Voting up a result (by hitting the +1 button) will help Google further refine its search results to favor popular pages.
Those +1 votes will be directly visible to any friends signed in with a Google Profile, and in aggregate the ratings will be used to help improve overall search results by including user preferences.
For publishers, the result is that pages given a +1 by readers will appear more prominently in Google searches, and will be highlighted as recommendations by friends within the reader’s social network. That network only extends to Google products currently, but it is expected to include Twitter and other services in the future.
The key, reports Danny Sullivan, is that publishers soon will be able to display the “+1” button on their own websites, much like Facebook’s now ubiquitous “Like” button is displayed.
Sullivan writes that Google expects to roll out the feature in “months not weeks” as it is currently focused on integrating the new ranking tool into its core search results.
When that does happen, it has the potential to swing the balance of power in the traffic referral battles back toward Google. In the past year, the search giant has seen Facebook increase its influence as a source of Web traffic.
Some media websites, such as Philly.com, have reported that the visitors they receive from Facebook, while fewer than those Google sends, are of a higher quality.
Lois Beckett wrote about that effect, measured by engagement calculation used on the site:
“While Google and Yahoo provide a lot of traffic, the visits that they send to Philly.com don’t tend to be engaged. Only 20.34 percent of visits that come through Google are engaged visits. In comparison, 33.64 percent of visits that come via Facebook are engaged.”
In theory, this increased engagement is due to the trust that readers place in the recommendations made by friends and acquaintances. A suggestion from someone you know on Facebook is likely to be more highly valued than that provided by an anonymous algorithm on Google’s servers.
So, while Google has cornered the market on making search results mathematically relevant, Facebook is gaining momentum when it comes to filtering suggestions that are socially relevant.
Journalists have been the beneficiaries of this shift. It’s difficult for an algorithm to quantify news for personal relevancy, and news also has a velocity that is difficult for a search engine to track. These are two reasons Twitter — which combines social networking and intense delivery speed — is such a powerful news distribution platform. It is also why Facebook, with its 600 million users, is a great place to discover news.
With +1, Google is hoping to add some of that social signal into its calculations.
For publishers, this is a win-win. If it works, no one will abandon Facebook as a valuable source of visitors, but websites definitely will look to optimize their sites for the +1 program.
What will that look like? Well, +1 buttons will pop on news sites everywhere. Watch for Google logins to be used increasingly for commenting and other authorization purposes alongside Twitter and Facebook, since the social recommendations function require users to be signed into Google.
There is a risk here of confusing readers with too many login options and sharing tools, but with three billion Google searches per day, publishers will be eager to capture even a sliver of that potential traffic.