Key Problems With Current Social Link Graph Signals

With the roll out of Google +1 Buttons For Websites, almost all the key players in the on-page social button space are ready for the fight to truly be joined. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and old stallwarts Sharethis and Add-This all provide content creators with the ability to embed shareability, and signals which can be studied (Note to Bing: it’s not that hard. Make a little b! codelit and we will figure out what to do with it for you).

social button logos

As a linking strategist, I totally dig social buttons. Making it easier for people to rate, share, save and bookmark URLs is Nirvana for me. See my LinkMoses post Riding The Twitter Link Waves for a case study.

At the same time, I have never been a fan of “wisdom of the crowd” or “grouplink” signals. Go read Brandon Keim’s thought provoking column at WIRED - Sharing Information Corrupts Wisdom of Crowds, where a recent study showed when people can learn what others think, the wisdom of crowds may veer towards ignorance.

Social sharing was fine when it was not a search signal. And someday, maybe 20 years from now, it might make search more than just the social curiosity it is now. What bothers me about the social link graph is not that it’s so easily gamed/spammed. It’s that people can be part of each others social circles yet have very little in common.

Nice Pants Jim…No Really

My friend Jim is a great guy, and I’ve known him a long time. I’ve been in his house, seen his bookshelf and CD/DVD collection, and I know how he dresses and what he drives. And while I enjoy seeing him and catching up on the kids, life, sports, etc., I have no desire to let Jim’s Tweets and Likes and Plusses impact my search results.

Why? Well for one thing, his love for Yanni will be at war with my love for Nine Inch Nails, and isn’t that an interesting battle for the engines to make sense of?

There’s a bit of forced comformity lurking underneath the social link graph, and that is, in my opinion, evil.

This leads me list a few ideas that would give me more confidence in allowing a social circle to affect search results.

Twitter

It is impossible to follow more than 100 people and actually keep up with their tweetstream, unless you are unemployed. You know it’s true.  And if you aren’t unemployed, 90% of those tweets sail right by you because, well, you are working. I know from my own work day that I don’t have time for the noise, even from those 78 people I follow.

The fact that I have 4,000 followers via @ericward amazes me, but it also leads me to believe that rule #1 for Twitter signals must be  if you have anything of value to say or share, then you should have earned way more followers than people you follow. So as a starter, any Twitter user with who follows more people than they have following them is not a useful signal.

Facebook

I could write volumes on the flaws with Facebooks social signals, but here are two simple ones.  A few weeks ago, I had a call with a prospective client who had a “revolutionary diet product”.  I’d never heard of this product in my life, their Facebook page was just a couple months old, and yet it already had 78,000 “Likes”. When I asked how this could be, I was told they had been purchased.  They were paid likes.  I already knew this, but his willingness to admit it was almost refreshing in it’s dishonesty.

Problem 2: I can kind of understand why a product page like Advil has 12,000 Likes, but what if your product happens to be something that might be very helpful but is not something one wants to disclose they use? And I don’t just mean something like Preparation H (731 Likes, bless them all), what about a product for wart removal, or heaven forbid, genital wart removal? Or how about a Facebook page for a treatment facility for substance abuse? How eager are people to let the world know they are drug abusing hemorrhoid sufferers? Go ahead, Like that.

I’m joking, but the salient point here is there’s a psychology to social sharing and human nature that means not all things are as likely to be Liked. So, rule#1 for Facebook signals is there has to be a topic specific Like graph, and in some instances, no Like graph at all.

Google +1

I like being able to click the +1 button in the search results, but I also wonder just how this impacts corporate search marketing behavior. Does a company with 250,000 employees have an unfair advantage because they can send an internal note to their entire company asking them the click the +1 button? Is a competing company with only 10,000 employees at a disadvantage?

Remember, none of these +1′s are legitimate anyway (because they are mandated, not earned) and if we are looking only at social circles, wouldn’t IBM employees be more likely to have social circles that included other IBM employees? What’s the point of +1′ing your own company to your own social circle?

Now that the Google +1 button is lose in the wild, this will change things, hopefully for the better, but there remains another far greater problem with Tweets, Likes, and +1′s.

Old Gold Gets No Social Love

The problem is with older yet still awesome content. No matter how fantastic and evergreen it may be, it’s less likely to be Tweeted and Liked and Plussed, because back at the time it was created there were not as many people in the social web world to do so.

Here’s an example: Danny Sullivan’s incredible Introducing: The Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors was Tweeted, Liked, and Plussed over 6,000 times in just 2 days. Compare that to the equally important column Danny wrote on Jun 2, 2008 titled Microsoft Wins Deal For Live Search To Be Default On HP Computers.

That was some really big news at the time. I mean Big News. Yet that column does not have a single Tweet, Like, or Plus. So, rule#1 for for Google +1 is there needs to be a way to reduce any bias against “older” content that didn’t have the same chance to be “Liked”, since the “Like” functionality didn’t exist yet.

Social linking and Liking is a beautiful thing. But it has miles to go before I will have confidence in the wisdom of the crowds and the button of the moment versus the wisdom of the algorithm.

(Note to @yanni:  It’s nothing personal and I’m sorry. My Mother has many of your CDs)

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Week Column

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About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via EricWard.com.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.dandycustard.com Daniel Deceuster

    This post just made me stand up in the middle of my office and clap. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Think of this- who are the most followed people on Twitter? Most liked on Facebook? Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber and other useless people with nothing worthwhile to say or contribute to society. Yet these are the most popular people out there.

    Sorry, I don’t agree, and I don’t want Google to follow the collective wisdom of the masses precisely for that reason. The masses are stupid. The masses can name the three stooges but not the three branches of government. The masses know who Justin Bieber is but not Joe Biden. I would feel a lot better if social stayed out of search myself.

  • http://www.seoinc.com John E Lincoln

    Great post. I think you have honed in on a key flaw in the topic of social sharing and search, the introduction of unconsidered noise. This may very well result in us muddling up the search experience. Although Google, without sharing signals, was less social it was controlled and filtered information. With the addition of social data we are exposed to search result chaos, as it contains suggestions from people who may be friends, but have a different perspective on information and research. Nice points here.

    @johnelincoln

  • http://www.VerticalMeasures.com Arnie K

    Eric, have to admit I usually find something to take issue with in your articles, but this one I agree with every word. I have been very involved in the ratings & review space for 13 years. Even have a patent for a recommendation technology.

    We built it because we knew what my very best friend reads, listens to and watches is totally different than what I do. And then there is the whole “gaming” of the system aspect. And I never really thought about “age” as a factor. I certainly hope all those Phd’s at Google are on top of this.

    Great article.

    Arnie

  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    Hi Arnie, hey thank you! I usually take issue with my own articles too:). On the one hand, I want to tell it like I think it is, on the other hand, I often don’t believe every word I write. And, of course, I have to keep folks confused just enough to hire me:). If I told every truth I know, half would be wrong, and nobody would need me.

  • http://www.VerticalMeasures.com Arnie K

    Eric – thanks for clarifying. Clear as mud now. Well at least half of it is. :-)

  • http://www.banta.tv Tracy Falke

    Oh my God, Eric. Bloody Brilliant.

    Right, I’m off to work contact my industry peeps to see if I can get on the speaking rota for the next #SMX because I have got to spend more time with this crew.

    I LOVE IT! I also have lots and lots of ideas of how to amend the algorithm.

  • http://www.google.com/ Azi Azimi

    Eric, what a brilliant article couldn’t have put it any better. This whole social thing has been driving Google and other search engines nuts. Eli Pariser did a great talk at TED about few months ago on topic of “filter bubbles” and it is so true.

    We should be able to control this whole social madness. I closed down my last google account because my results kept showing some website just because I exchanged 1-2 emails with the owner. And there was no way for me to delete that listing from my search results it kept showing up for everything I wrote.

    Thanks for sharing this one with us.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com George Michie

    Brilliant stuff, Eric. I’ve often thought Facebook needs to devise attributes of friendship. I have professional friends, school friends, local friends, etc. I have friends whose taste in music/politics/books I care about and others I don’t. I’d like …heh heh…to be able to share stuff with different subsets of my friends, and choose to here only relevant updates from friends. Cutting out the noise would make the signals more valuable and the engagement more meaningful.

  • http://www.buzzstream.com/blog Paul May

    Good points, Eric. I’m actually less concerned about the fact that your social graph consists of people that you don’t have much in common with than I am about the gaming/spam challenges you pointed out. There are social network analysis techniques that are designed to tease out many different graphs within a community. So, using twitter as an example, I have people in my set of followers/following that I’m connected to because they’re SEOs, others who I’m connected to because they’re in Austin, etc….and if you look even deeper, you’ll see very different social dynamics for different types of interactions and connections (e.g., Q&A graphs look very different than conversation graphs). So, using social data for determining rank is going to be a very tough problem, but over time the algorithms will get better about teasing out graphs by topic, interaction type, connection type, etc..

    All that said, I think the gaming issues are very problematic…just way too easy to do.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    I started to +1, LIKE, TWEET, and SHARE this article Eric but there are just too many buttons. I got tired after the +1 experience because every other service wants to have a conversation with me.

  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    @Michael I remember back when the buttons were called chiklets, and I called pages with too many of them chiklitter. I see history repeating itself. There are again too many buttons that do too many things. Did I just Like that, or fan it? Was that a tweet or a follow, or both I just did? Share this, add that, tweet this, like this, plus this, recommend that, bookmark this, buzz that. I’m online all day and still get confused, so I think the typical casual surfer is going to end up dazed and ignore most of them. Sometimes I just want to read a friggin article and not tell the entire planet I did so.

  • http://www.unsuccessfulartist.com/ seanruiz

    Thank you.. finally… for someone saying all of this.

  • Sarah Badani

    Hey Eric,
    great article. Eli Pariser has a great video explaining the subtle evils of this whole social influence on search engines (check it out: http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html) I don’t understand, though, why you seem to be saying that Google +1 is changing this influence more than Twitter, FB, etc. Am I missing or misunderstanding something?

    Thanks!

 

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