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Published May 11th 2011

Google +1 and The Death of Serendipitous Search

When Google +1 was announced back at the end of March, flurries of excitement spread around the tech world. Amongst the most intrigued were SEOs, as the announcement freshly revitalised one of their favourite forward-facing phrases: social search. Below is the history of people using the phrase ‘social search’, and underneath is mentions of Google +1; note the correlation of the spikes at the end of March:

Google I/O

Six weeks on, and more excitement. At Google I/O yesterday, the +1 button was previewed for the first time, with further explanation of how it will function in terms of the technical implementation and how measurement data will feed into Google Webmaster Tools.

For many people at the supply end, so to speak, this is all very exciting. It’s another weapon sites can utilise to tackle their search rankings and it will make the connection between social sharing and search rankings, something that was previously a little mysterious (although accepted), wholly explicit. Theoretically, it’s another step towards encouraging bloggers and webmasters to focus on the quality of their content – quite simply, to be found more easily by those searching, more people need to have recommended their content.

So, higher quality content – this means users should benefit from Google +1 too, right? Well, I’m not so sure. There are two main reasons I’m a little wary of the idea.

Relevance of Results

If I’m conducting a very general search, for example ‘all inclusive holidays’, the implications of using Google +1 seem pretty positive – my top results would presumably feature sites that my peers have recommended and, the unspecific nature of my search suggests I’m open to ideas and not sure where to look first; recommendations might be exactly what I need.

However, what if I’m looking for something more specific? Let’s say I search for something like ‘cheap all inclusive holidays in croatia’ – will my results still be affected by those recommendations I came across in my broader search? Now, with my more particular requirements, I might not find what I need on the sites or maybe I even went to them already and came to a dead end.

The Death of Serendipitous Search?

This might sound a little twee, but it’s a serious point too. One of the wonderful things about the internet is the way in which it enables us to stumble across the most obscure content, content which fascinates, educates and enriches us uniquely, because nobody else we know has seen it.

At this point – people will point to our instinctive urge to share. Sharing is great and of course it is one of the fundamental reasons for the explosion of social media, but it can lead to dilutions of our individual interests and curiosities if we all end up stuck in circles of the same material – content sharing and recommendations from friends are what we expect in social networks (Twitter in particular), but do we need them affecting our search results?

Now and the Future

There are countless other ways Google +1 could act as a hindrance and these largely depend on how heavily they are going to affect rankings. For example, I might be looking for a specific problem about Windows 7 and HDMI output, but I am met with results concerning HDMI cables or other Windows 7 troubleshooting that I’m not interested in and are only featured in my results because of multiple +1s. Of course we are expecting Google to be smarter than this, but you’d expect that +1s are going to carry pretty hefty weighting and be applied fairly broadly to results in order to ever be seen in the vast array of different searches we run.

Perhaps initially, the new feature might not make such a difference and I’m being unnecessarily cynical about the negatives, but when giants like Google make these kind of announcements, experience tells us to look at these developments in terms of what they could potentially mean in the future…

Basically what these concerns point to is the danger that everyone ends up reading the same things – do we want to always visit the same sites as our peers? Where would new stuff come from? Ultimately I suppose, there will be the option to turn it off (at least for now) so these concerns may be a bit premature, but sometimes it’s just fun to grumble.

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Crimson Hexagon has merged with Brandwatch. You’re in the right place!

From May 8th, all Crimson Hexagon products are now on the Brandwatch website. You’ll find them under ‘Products’ in the navigation. If you’re an existing customer and you want to know more, your account manager will be happy to help.