Commentary

Google's Sword Of Damocles?

I love a good story of mystery and intrigue, especially when it involves something as mundane as search engine optimization.

This story involves a reporter from Forbes, a Google salesguy, and the case of a missing news report.

Late last week, Forbes technology reporter Kashmir Hill wrote about being pulled into a meeting with Google salespeople at her publication. The Forbes folks wanted Hill's take on the meeting -- where, she wrote, the Google guy suggested a strong correlation between search results and publishers putting the Google "+1" button on their pages.

Right about now you're probably asking, "Where in the hell is the link to the story??" That's the same question everyone who saw the story on the Forbes site is asking - since it's now missing (cue menacing movie music).

Luckily, colleagues captured screenshots, so I'm able to report on what Hill wrote. In setting up the story, she described the aspects of Google+ that are social networking in substance, and the fact that activity in personal Circles will influence the search results you see. And then she wrote: "But a meeting with Google ad folks earlier this week made me realize that it's going to be even bigger than that. Google is encouraging web publishers to start adding +1 buttons to their pages, and the message in this meeting was clear, 'Put a Plus One button on your pages or your search traffic will suffer.'

The Google guy explained how the new recommendation system will be a factor in search. 'Universally, or just among Google Plus friends?' I asked. 'Universal' was the answer. 'So if Forbes doesn't put +1 buttons on its pages, it will suffer in search rankings?' I asked. Google guy says he wouldn't phrase it that way, but basically yes.'"

Being a good reporter, Hill went to the official Google PR folks to get their reaction to this bit of news. Here's what they told her: "'Google will study the clicks on +1 buttons as a signal that influences the ranking and appearance of websites in search results,' said a spokesperson. 'The purpose of any ranking signal is to improve overall search quality. For +1's and other social ranking signals, as with any new ranking signal, we'll be starting carefully and learning how those signals are related to quality.'"

Take it from one who knows, that's long-winded PR speak for "yes". As in "If Forbes doesn't include +1 buttons on its pages, it will suffer in search rankings?" The answer is: "Yes

Hall did post a summary of her reporting to her own Google+ Circles. And in the comments section below it, one commenter said he was aware of a push by Google to also give publishers a way to specify a Google+ profile as the author of a Web page via meta tags on that page. As the commenter points out, it would be a powerful way to boost your rankings as an author, because your identity would be consolidated to a single Web profile (as opposed to the many profiles we have all over the Web on Facebook, for instance, or LinkedIn or a work profile on a company website).

There was one other comment, which asked, what happened to the Forbes article? Why was it pulled-- and why must one do so much sleuthing in order to find its ghost? Hard to say... perhaps the reporter got her information wrong? Or maybe Forbes didn't like seeing the results of a routine business meeting appear as news?

Whatever the case, given Google PR's comments to the reporter, it seems we're all on notice. Get Google's +1 button onto your webpages -- or suffer the consequences.

11 comments about "Google's Sword Of Damocles?".
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  1. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, August 22, 2011 at 2:02 p.m.

    I have mixed feelings on this. With my publisher hat, I can understand Forbes's frustration that this feels like a strong-arm tactic on Google's part to make Google Plus ubiquitous. Announcing that +1 is going to be an SEO factor is also unnecessarily bold -- because it gives major incentives for click farms to game and pollute Google+ with fake profiles and likes.
    With my user hat, I feel this is a step in the right direction to improve search--giving readers the power to give instant feedback as to whether they found an article helpful. A long time coming.
    Lawyer hat: For anti-trust purposes, I'd think Google would need to explicitly ensure that +1 isn't weighted any differently than Facebook likes.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 22, 2011 at 3:11 p.m.

    I see blackmail.

  3. Jon Henshaw, August 22, 2011 at 3:25 p.m.

    I blogged about this last Thursday and included a link to Blekko's cache of the story (which is still live) http://raven.im/nz5EvK This article seems a lot similar to mine ;)

    Also, on an amusing note, you may want to check out this NPR story in regards to "Sword Of Damocles" :) http://n.pr/ogMs5L

  4. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, August 22, 2011 at 3:40 p.m.

    Paula -- I think you mean extortion; I am sure Forbes feels the same way.

  5. George Michie from Rimm-Kaufman Group, August 22, 2011 at 4:26 p.m.

    Google has said publicly that +1s will be a signal in search. Every commentator in the industry has said: very few folks are going to +1 a link to a page, since they haven't seen the page yet, so the only way you're going to generate +1s is to put it on your page. Hence, the fact that you're missing what is to be an important positive signal is...well ... bad for your rankings.

    If instead, this was 2003 and the Google rep said: "Our spider can't really read flash, and it likes good link text. If you don't have good link text it will hurt your rankings..." would we feel any different?

    This isn't blackmail, it's cluing people in on how to play the game. Google has always done this. Would they be happier if Google didn't give them the heads up?

  6. Derek Gordon from Re:Imagine Group, August 22, 2011 at 5:15 p.m.

    @Jon Henshaw -- Good God... you're right; it *is* similar. Great minds? I got the tip-off from my client at Daylife, who shared the shots with me. Thanks for the NPR link.

  7. Bruce May from Bizperity, August 22, 2011 at 5:46 p.m.

    Why is this any different than Facebook recommending you but a "Like" button on your page? Wouldn't that also increase your ranking in any search? Do you want to handicap Google becuase it is now both a search engine and a social media site? Now that I have asked it that way maybe we should.

  8. Alan Bush from Best Rank, Inc, August 22, 2011 at 7:34 p.m.

    That's the biggest issue is that Google +1 (and plus for that matter) are already going to be used to exploit rankings and are now ripe for spammers. Also I'm not fully convinced that the public should have a say in what's relevant per se, for this very reason. The amount of spammers and people that just plain aren't informed and go after what people tell them just is probably not the best way to run an "objective" information warehouse. This strong arm tactic hopefully will give rise to people choosing alternative search engines. I really like Google but they're "tweaking" things way too much lately and I just worry they will monopolize the market.

  9. Mark Shannon Oneill from ROI Media Solutions, August 22, 2011 at 8:58 p.m.

    So, as I consider posting a link to this to my Circles, where's your +1 icon? MSO

  10. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 22, 2011 at 9:56 p.m.

    Yes, you are right Andrew. Thank you. So extortion is illegal, too, whether G or FB ? But I wouldn't put blackmail beyond G's range of motion in some other instance. Hard to believe Forbes is the only publication involved.

  11. Brad Stewart from Adjoy, August 23, 2011 at 8:16 p.m.

    By some estimations, Google is the second most respected brand in the world (after Apple). Therefore, a Google "Like" button is long long overdue. If their brand were less respected than it is, I could see there being a valid problem. Maybe Apple needs to get their Apple+ (A+) going?!

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