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Facebook Launches Search

September 23 2011 // SEO + Social Media // 6 Comments

Facebook rolled out the razzle and the dazzle during f8 2011. Yet behind all the glitz, all the music and all the cool were fundamental changes that put Facebook in direct competition with Google.

Facebook Launches Search

 Dude, Wait, What? LOLcat

Did you miss it? I almost did too. It was wrapped up in the Social News Apps part of the presentation. Zuckerberg demonstrated how you would see all of the stories your friends were reading about a certain news topic.

That's search.

Facebook is returning a set of results on a topic curated by your friends. In search speak that's returning a set of documents based on a query, sorted by a social signal. They're talking about it in relation to news but they could do this with any type of document or media.

The Open Graph

Facebook Open Graph

Facebook can do this because of the Open Graph. Both Zuckerberg and Bret Taylor spoke about building on and expanding the Open Graph with Apps. The original Open Graph App is the Like button, and we've been dutifully clicking that button for well over a year now, telling Facebook where we are and what we Like. People are buzzing about the new Open Graph Apps, and they should be excited.

Web Intents

The new 'Read', 'Listen' and 'Watch' functionality is essentially a frictionless, more nuanced Like. Some of these new verbs will be delivered through Open Graph Apps from media companies like Spotify and Netflix. Facebook doesn't want to interrupt your activity attention.

No more clicking.

But this isn't something that Facebook is sitting in a room dreaming up laughing a Dr. Evil laugh. A lot of this is also being explored via Web Intents, a reference to an Android feature. A great post by Glenn Jones describes web intents and an idea for a web intents management dashboard, banishing pesky button sluts from the Internet landscape.

At f8 Facebook announced it wants to be that dashboard.

Patterns

Patterns

There was a lot of talk about uncovering patterns in the behavior of your social graph. Maybe Facebook thinks patterns is a more palatable term than algorithm, but that's basically what they're talking about. The Open Graph contains a representation (i.e. - index) of the Internet, but 'crawled' and 'indexed' by people through social gestures or web intents (choose your buzzword).

Thus far the only real social gesture has been Like. New Open Graph Apps reduce the friction and increase the diversity of social gestures entering the Open Graph. Facebook wants more data to mine and they want better context with that data.

Facebook is making it easy for you to help them build a better web index.

Timeline

So why all the focus on the timeline? I think there is a human desire to delve into our past, whether it be scrap-booking or genealogy or plain nostalgia. Facebook seems to be the platform where a lot of those connections (to those high school 'friends') persist. So it makes sense from that stand point.

But it also provides a very clear infrastructure for ensuring that important documents are preserved. It's not easy to find certain pieces of content from five years ago. Even with savvy search parameters locating old content can be difficult. Trust me, I do this a lot and I'm amazed at how tough it can be.

Remember, digital content is exploding! Capturing the 'right' and 'good' content is getting more difficult. Facebook is using crowdsourcing to tackle this problem via Open Graph Apps and tucking it away in a time based archive for easy retrieval.

If the timeline works, Facebook creates a well curated repository of documents and social gestures.

GraphRank 

Minority Report Interface

The other concept introduced was the idea that Facebook can understand what is personally relevant to you through GraphRank. I've seen a lot of people complain about EdgeRank (which I assume has now been replaced by GraphRank). People didn't want Facebook to make those decisions and Eli Pariser was irked and sold a lot of books.

But Google wants the same thing really. They've talked about psychic search and about knowing what you want before you realize it yourself. Here's what Eric Schmidt had to say four years ago.

“The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ ”

“We cannot even answer the most basic questions because we don’t know enough about you. That is the most important aspect of Google’s expansion.”

That puts Google+ into perspective doesn't it?

Search Re-imagined

GraphRank seems like the introduction of a continuous frictionless search. Sure, it's passive search but there are more and more ways to pivot that into an active search. Isn't this just another take on what the Google Related Toolbar is doing?

My 'More Like This' concept could now be executed without a click and instead deliver a set of related 'stories' when I hover over that item. One only needs to check out dontclick.it to see what could be.

Search as we know it today may not be what it looks like tomorrow. Facebook made me think that the way we discover information could change and that the definition of search is mutating.

TL;DR

Facebook launched their version of search at f8. It might not be the traditional search you imagine, but it's search nonetheless. Building on the Open Graph, Facebook will rely on Open Graph Apps to create a more diverse and frictionless social stream that will become the bedrock for information discovery interfaces of the future ... and past.

Google Influence Metric

September 19 2011 // SEO + Social Media // 7 Comments

Is Google building an influence metric? I think so. And they're doing it by mapping the engagement graph.

Connecting the Dots

On June 3rd Google acquired PostRank. On June 7th Google began supporting authorship. On June 28th Google began to highlight authors in search results, the same day they launched launched Google+.

The next day +1 data began to appear in both Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. On August 9 Google simplified authorship markup for single author sites and blogs. On August 24 Google connected the +1 button to Google+.

Finally, on September 15, Google rejiggered the Links section on Google+ profiles. The last change created three sections of links 'Other profiles' (Identity), 'Contributor to' (Authorship) and 'Recommended link'.

Taken together I see a company aggressively building a new way to measure authority, influence and engagement.

What is PostRank?

PostRank Logo Big

The name itself is fairly self-explanatory, don't you think? The service ranks blog posts. Here's how PostRank describes it.

The social web connects people where they share, critique and interact with content and each other. PostRank is the largest aggregator of social engagement data in the industry.

Our platform tracks where and how users engage, and what they pay attention to — in real-time. PostRank social engagement data measures actual user activity, the most accurate indicator of the relevance and influence of a site, story, or author.

The emphasis is mine but , seriously, can it get any more clear? With this acquisition in place Google's emphasis on identity and authorship makes perfect sense.

PostRank Data

If you're a PostRank Analytics user you're still getting a daily engagement report which gives a fair amount of insight into what is collected and tracked.

PostRank Daily Engagement Report

Social Activity is essentially an aggregate dashboard report. Directly below this is the Activity Stream.

PostRank Activity Stream

The data here is rich and ripe for further analysis. Google now knows who, how, where and when someone reacted to a piece of content.

The Ws

The Google Version of The Spanish Inquisition

I'll bastardize the standard Five Ws journalism concept for my own purposes. Google wants to know who wrote the content, when and where was it published, what it was about and how it was received. (There's an Inception like element here since how spawns another set of Ws.)

Google has long understood the when and where through their normal crawling and indexing activities. The what is an ongoing refinement process of relevance using various natural language processing and machine learning techniques. What is ... what made Google the leader in the search.

Google+ and rel="author" give Google the who (identity and authorship matter) and PostRank tells Google how that content was acted on.

The Engagement Graph

What we're seeing is the emergence of an engagement graph. (I know, like we need another graph, right?) I think this differs from your social graph since many of the people who engage with your content are not part of a traditional social graph. For example, I don't know everyone who bookmarks my content on Delicious.

An analysis of engagement might also help to mitigate social graph manipulation. Isn't it curious how a minute after some sites publish a blog post they've already generated 20+ Tweets? Robo-syndication represents a very low level of engagement. Personally, I'd handicap any resulting engagement based on the manipulation of social proof. But I digress.

Mapping and measuring engagement is a difficult business. PostRank was able to create a very simple scoring metric. Activities were scored based on the level of engagement: Trackback (13), Comment (10), Tweet (7), Bookmark (5).

Google can do far more with the PostRank data and create a nuanced scoring metric. Was the trackback from a respected blog? Was it linked to contextually within the post or as part of an automated 'related links' block?

Was the comment from someone with subject matter expertise, authority and influence? What were the contents and sentiment of that comment? Was the comment free of spelling and grammatical errors? Did it include a link?

Who Tweeted the content? How influential is that person? Are they a subject matter expert in this area? What is the velocity of Tweets for that individual? The latter could be very interesting. You could conceivably apply a type of PageRank metric to a stream of Tweets, dividing the influence of a Tweet by the number of Tweets delivered within a specified time frame.

Beyond these silos they'll likely look at whether it's the same people engaging with your content again and again. The diversity of engagement should be a positive signal, whereas a very uniform engagement profile might raise some red flags. If you haven't already figured it out, many of the same principles of the link graph apply to the engagement graph.

Of course Google will add other sources to the mix including +1 button data and all Google+ interactions.  They paint a picture of influence by applying a deep analysis of engagement against a large data set of actions from verified authors.

Influence By Numbers?

Color By Numbers

The debate about influence is as hot as ever. Does your Klout or PeerIndex number really provide an accurate picture of influence? I think these metrics are interesting but I certainly wouldn't rely on them. In fact, AdAge recently had to change their Power 150 calculation because the PostRank API was no longer available. (Yeah, Google doesn't seem to want to share this data. That should tell you something.)

A recent blog post by Mark Schaefer was refreshingly honest and insightful about the AdAge 'apocalypse'.

I think this pokes about at a recent theme of this blog — social proof and the fact that oftentimes on the social web a numerical rating provides a more important symbol of accomplishment than actual accomplishment. But this time it really hit home. Even if it’s a fake badge, the business benefits of being on the list can be real.

I can't think this is Google's view of influence. In fact, I picture a passionate lecture about why this is completely and utterly wrong. It's a meritocracy not a popularity contest. No, I don't think that Google will be releasing an influence number. Ever. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Influence will exist where it counts most, in search results.

TL;DR

The launch of Google+, the promotion of rel="author" and the acquisition of PostRank make it clear that Google is mapping the engagement graph and establishing a new metric of influence that will impact search results.

Optimize The Google +1 Button

September 01 2011 // SEO + Social Media // 16 Comments

Last week Google made a major change to the +1 button, allowing users to share a +1 with Circles on Google+. Essentially, the +1 button now has similar functionality to Facebook's Like button. I'd been procrastinating on Like button optimization so this was the impetus I needed to finally do something about it.

Google +1 Button

Here's what I did to optimize the Google +1 button. Let me state up front that I am not a coding guru. But I know enough to be dangerous, enjoy tinkering and am not afraid to break my site as I experiment.

I recommend this only for those using a self-hosted WordPress blog.

Speed

When the Google +1 button first came out it was s l o w. It was the last of my buttons to load. But that changed when Google released asynchronous code. If you haven't made the switch yet, go and get the new code.

Google +1 Button Asynchronous Code

I use the Smart Sharing plugin for my floating share bar. So I just dropped the appropriate code snippets into the 'Custom Codes' area. This is really easy. After doing this, the +1 button is often the very first to load.

Placement

Where you put the Google +1 button matters. The floating share bar on this blog, powered by the Smart Sharing plugin, did require a fair amount of CSS customization to display properly. (Thank goodness for Firebug and other sites who use a similar display.) But the customization has been worth it!

It's not just about where but how many buttons you present. A huge row or drop down full of buttons can cause indecision. Too many choices are bad. So pick the buttons that are meaningful to your audience and use them.

I get far more social engagement with a handful of  floating buttons than a slew of buttons at the top or bottom of the post.

Snippet

Now that speed and placement are taken care of it's time to optimize the snippet. The snippet is the title, description and image displayed when someone shares your content through a Like or Google +1 button. Controlling what this looks like is important.

Here's an optimized snippet from this blog.

Optimized Google +1 Button Snippet

And here's a non-optimized snippet from the Official Google Blog.

Non-Optimized Google +1 Button Snippet

Now, maybe Google can get away with a poor snippet but the rest of us probably can't.

Structured Markup

Optimizing your snippet means adding some structured markup to your page. This is a lot less complicated than it sounds. In fact, both Facebook and Google are omnivorous and will parse your site looking for any way to cobble together the best snippet.

How Google Populates the Google +1 Snippet

Google recommends using the new Schema.org microdata. But they seem happy to fall back on the more ubiquitous Open Graph protocol (funny how they don't mention the word Facebook) or normal meta title and description tags. In fact, the only method they don't recommend is having absolutely no structured markup at all.

Don't obsess about implementing microdata because Google certainly isn't.

Most of you probably have the title and description taken care of, but it's the image that might be causing you some heartburn. In many ways though, that might be the most important part of the snippet. People scan content and a good image is like a stop sign for the eyes.

For a long time Facebook was using my Feedburner chicklet for my snippet image. I got tired of seeing this and created a default image for all of my posts. It wasn't optimal but at least I didn't look like a buffoon anymore. Read on to see how I took things to the next level.

Plugins

Like millions of others, I rely on a number of plugins to add features and functionality to my WordPress blog. It's important that you understand the plugins I'm using since it will impact how you might implement snippet optimization with your own WordPress configuration.

I use the Like plugin to generate my Open Graph tags. It's worked well, though I may think about doing it myself after going through this process. In general, this plugin is easy to use and efficient. It's this plugin that allowed me to hard code a default image for my snippet.

I use All In One SEO to optimize title and meta description, among other things. I hear good things about WordPress SEO by Yoast, but haven't had any real reason to switch. I may eventually, but I use other plugins that may have to be deactivated to take advantage of the full feature set offered.

I tried the Schema for WordPress plugin and admire the effort, but find it too complex and onerous. In addition, I don't believe it supports the Schema meta tags which is what the Google +1 button seems to want.

How to Customize Your Google +1 Snippet

Frankly, this is part of the problem with the microdata implementation. Do I put it in the head or the body? Or both? It's almost too flexible.

Custom Field

So, with all those Plugins in place, my main task was to find a way to generate a different image for each post. That's where a custom field comes in handy. Custom fields sound complicated but they're actually pretty straight forward. I created a custom field that would contain the URL of the snippet image.

You'll see the Custom Fields option in your normal Edit Post window.

Enter a new Custom Field

Click 'Enter new' and you'll now be presented with an entry field.

Configuring a Custom Field

Just enter the name of your custom field (I used og_img but you could name is something different) and the value you want to give that custom field for this post and click the 'Add Custom Field' button. In this case enter the full URL path of the image you want to use for this post's snippet in the value field.

This creates that custom field in the database and associates the URL for that custom field for this post. This does not mean that you are assigning this value (this URL) to every post. This is just the way you get the custom field ball rolling.

Custom Fields in Drop Down Menu

Now you've got the custom field in place for that post and you can select that custom field from the drop down menu for all other posts from now on.

In fact, that's how you'll specify the image snippet for each post moving forward. You only use the 'Enter new' to create the custom field. Once created, always select it from the Name drop down menu.

Yes, this means that you'll be taking one extra step each time you publish a blog post. I see this as a small price to pay for an optimized image snippet and lump it in with writing an optimized title and description. They're simply part of the publishing process.

Image

The image you use can make or break your snippet. It's not just about the content of that image but the size of that image. You could have the best, funniest image ever but if it doesn't translate on social platforms then it's all for naught. In this case size actually refers to the dimensions of the image.

A square image (e.g. - 300x300) is a safe bet. If you're not using a square or squarish image then you want to pick vertical rectangles over horizontal rectangles. Obviously, really long vertical rectangles won't work either. Use commonsense, test and learn as you go.

Image Snippet Size Guide

One other thing to note is that the image you use doesn't actually have to be in the blog post. I personally think it should, but you can upload any image to use as your image snippet. This might come in handy if you don't have any images in a post (not recommended) or images that won't translate onto social platforms (such as a horizontal code screen capture.)

Header Code

Creating the Custom Field only gets you half way there. Then you have to use it within your theme. That means you'll need to tinker with your header.php file by navigating to Appearance -> Editor -> Header (header.php)

Edit Theme Header

First things first. Copy your entire header.php file into a text file just in case you really screw something up and need to revert back. Just copy everything in that window into your favorite text application.

Next, you want to place the following code into your header.php file between the head tags (<head>, </head>). I recommend placing the code in just before the close (</head>) tag.

<!-- Facebook Open Graph Image -->
<?php if(get_post_meta($post->ID, 'og_img')){ ?>
<meta property="og:image" content="<?php echo get_post_meta($post->ID, 'og_img', $single = true); ?>" />
<?php } else { ?>
<meta property="og:image" content="http://www.blindfiveyearold.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/blind-five-year-old-150x150.png" />
<?php } ?>

This code creates an og:image tag using the image in your custom field (og_img) or, if there is no custom field for that post, will use the default image specified instead. This is essentially the code that starfly describes in this WordPress forum post.

Make sure you change the custom field name appropriately (if you didn't use og_img as I did) and that you use your own default image instead of mine. The first line of this code is non-functional and is there only to help you identify it amid all the other code.

After you've entered this code, click 'update the file' and you're done!

Validation

To test whether it works you can first look at your blog post and view source. Look for the og:image tag and make sure that it's populating correctly. If that's not your cup of tea, you can also run your blog post through Facebook's URL Linter Debugger.

Facebook Debugger Validation Results

Finally, try sharing your post on using the Google +1 and Like buttons and make sure it's optimized to your liking.

Where's the Microdata?

I intended to show you how to cover your bases and implement an additional set of microdata in your header. It was going to be pretty darn clever. In fact, I spent two days figuring it all out, cursing PHP and breaking my site for hours on end. Trust me, I want to show it off!

But as I did due diligence on this post the microdata seemed to confuse Facebook and was, overall, just too brittle to use at this point. Honestly, do you really want to maintain two different types of structured markup?

I can see using microdata in other ways, but not for snippet optimization.

Google +1 Button Optimization

Two Birds with One Stone

So, in short, I'm using All In One SEO and the Like plugin along with a Custom Field to generate Open Graph tags that are then used by both Facebook and Google in their button snippets. Two birds with one stone!

I welcome questions on my implementation as well as feedback from others who can improve my code or have found other ways to optimize these snippets.

Comment Censorship

August 07 2011 // Rant + Social Media + Technology // 15 Comments

In the past month I've left a number of comments on blogs only to find they were never published.

Fry Meme Spam or Blog Censorship

I'd like to believe that the blog owners simply didn't see my comment. That it fell into their spam queue which they rarely, if ever, look at. Because the alternative is that they saw the post and decided to suppress it. Now, it's their blog - their little corner of the Internet - but this type of censorship is troubling.

Comments Content

What about the content of my comments? To be fair, in some instances I was disagreeing with some or all of the content in that post. But I did so in a constructive manner, using links to my own thoughts on the topic or to other material to help round out my argument.

I regularly publish comments on this blog that are contrary to my own opinion. One only has to look at the comments on my Stop Writing For People post for examples. I'm free to respond and defend myself, but having the debate in the open is important. It builds trust, much like having bad reviews on a product is actually a good thing.

Comments are incredibly valuable because they provide additional information on the content. They make your content better through clarification, confirmation, addition and debate.

Comments = Content.

Comments are a rich source of meta information that deliver value to both readers and search engines. This extends to links as well! Relevant links in comments help create a web of information that users now and in the future will find useful.

Yet it is those links that may be at the root of the problem.

Comment Spam

It's like the Internet version of a plague of locusts. One of the most popular ways to combat comment spam is to screen comments that have links. This is one of the default setting in Akismet.

It makes sense since many spammers will drop a link or links in comments. But links are not the problem. Spammers are the problem.

What's wrong with contextual links to relevant content? This is not behavior that should be penalized. In fact, it should be encouraged. In many ways, the comment spam problem threatens the link graph.

ratio of comment spam to real comments

Not only that but, anecdotally, it seems that comment spam sometimes pushes people to disable comments altogether. When the ratio of comment spam to real comments is too high, many simply give up. I understand the decision but it's depressing that it gets to that point.

Outsourcing

Fed up with comment spam and general comment management, have we decided to outsource engagement to social networks? Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ are all happy to provide venues in which comments can flourish. Make no mistake, these venues understand the value of comments.

Is our obsession with amplification and generating social proof robbing us of the real value of comments and conversation? Certainly there is some hope that it's like a rubber band. The content goes out, but then snaps back, drawing more comments to your content. It works to a certain extent, but by how much and at what cost is an interesting debate.

The Filter Bubble

Of course these bloggers may have seen my comment and simply decided not to publish it. Eli Pariser argues that personalization and 'invisible algorithmic editing' as a real danger but I think comment censorship (whether intentional or accidental) is the true menace.

I believe much of the hype around the filter bubble is FUD. Personalization is rather minimal in most cases though I do agree with Gabriel Weinberg's view of how to deal with personalization.

Personalization is not a black and white feature. It doesn't have to be on or off. It isn't even one-dimensional. At a minimum users should know which factors are being used and at best they should be able to choose which factors are being used, to what degree and in what contexts.

Personalization deals with the fact that some content isn't being made readily visible. Comment censorship excises content from the Internet altogether.

Identity

So what could help get us out of this morass? How can we ensure comments are once again a vital part of the content ecosystem? Identity.

Identity

The reason why many embraced Facebook comments was because comments are attached to an identity. Not only that, but an identity that people cared about. This obviates the need for aggressive moderation. You might run into a troll, but it'll be a troll you can clearly identify and block.

Identity essentially stops comment spam because you can't post as Best Miami Attorneys. Comment moderation is suddenly manageable again.

Censorship

A commenting system that uses identity removes most of the uncertainty around comment censorship. If my comment isn't published, it's likely because that blogger made an active decision to toss it into the HTML version of The Bermuda Triangle.

Cat Censors Blog Comments

If the filter bubble can be managed through making personalization transparent, so too can comment censorship. A third-party, identity-backed comment system could track the number of comments censored on each blog. A grade or score could then be shown to let users know how much of the conversation was being censored. In some ways it would be like Charity Navigator but for blogs.

So perhaps the blogger who touts the benefits of community actually censors 32% of blog comments. That might be an interesting thing to know.

Could this get messy? Sure. But you can build a system of checks and balances.

Reputation

Bad Reputation by Joan Jett

Joan Jett might not care about her bad reputation but you should. Whether it's a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, number of Likes, sentiment analysis, length of comments, spelling and grammar or other metrics, a savvy comment system could begin to assign reputation to each user.

So the censorship percentage wouldn't be flat in nature. If you blocked a known troll, no worries. If you censored someone who had a history of abusive comments full of foul language, no problem.

On the other hand, it would be disturbing if you censor someone who consistently adds value to conversations. The reputation of those you censor would matter.

Confidence

I'd like to be confident that I'm not missing good comments that wind up going into spam.

I'd like to be confident that if I take the time and effort to comment on a blog that it will be published and, hopefully, spark further comment and conversation.

I'd like to be confident that the comments I read are not biased and simply a form of self-curated cheerleading.

"Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence." - Vince Lombardi

The Internet desperately needs more confidence.

Google Plus, Identity and SEO

July 25 2011 // SEO + Social Media // 23 Comments

Google+ has seen unprecedented adoption over the last month and it is clearly the best social effort Google has produced to date.

But why is Google pursuing social in the first place?

G+

Some see G+ as proof that Google is chasing tail lights, while others see it as a natural extension of Google's mission, which is 'to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.' In this instance, that information is social in nature.

I see two compelling reasons behind G+: search and advertising.

G+ provides Google with a primary source of social data to mine and use for search purposes. Can you blame Google for not wanting to rely on Twitter or Facebook for social signals?

G+ also seeks to break the stranglehold Facebook has on attention. This is important because the ad business runs on attention. If you're on Facebook for 55 minutes a day, that leaves less time for other sites. G+ doesn't have to beat Facebook it simply needs to fracture its monopoly on attention.

Identity

Who Album Cover

One of the more controversial aspects of Google+ has been Google's insistence on people using real names.

Google Profiles is a product that works best in the identified state. This way you can be certain you’re connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they’re checking out. For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.

I probably won't make many friends by saying I completely agree with this policy.

Some believe that sacrificing anonymity will sacrifice risk-taking, honesty and whistle-blowing. There may be less of that, but it won't stop. And is it so bad to encourage people to take risks and be honest without the crutch of anonymity? For those of you who think I'm not personally aware of the issues here, let me disabuse you of that notion.

Back in 2008 I dashed off a quick email to the editor of The Contra Costa Times. It wound up in the paper and was attributed with my name and city. About a week later I got this in the mail.

coward writes a letter

This person found my address (which was not in the paper) and sent me this erudite note. It was unsigned and did not have a return address. It was a bit chilling. Yet, the anonymity used belies a cowardly nature. This person also can't seem to get my name right, but who cares about details like that when you just want to call someone names.

I'm not saying all anonymity leads to this type of behavior. Nor do I downplay the need for anonymity in certain situations. Speaking out in other countries could have dire consequences. But one of the reasons people embraced Facebook's new commenting system was the fact that identity would reduce spam and needless flame wars. No more anonymous pot shots from the peanut gallery.

Could Google be doing a better job in how they handle the policy? Yes. But I believe they're far more concerned with ensuring that spam doesn't enter this new ecosystem, both for user experience and data integrity.

What's In A Name?

Nick Halden Alias

I don't think Google is saying you have to use your true name. I'm assuming that Mark Twain could sign up, but so could Samuel Clemens. And it's not that hard to set up a new persona online. Maybe we'd even see profiles for both Neil Caffrey and Nick Halden.

But why does Google care so much about identity, particularly on G+? What does it really do for them? Here's where I think the rubber really meets the road.

Identity allows Google to map the web of people.

Since Google launched, they've indexed the web using links. That's worked amazingly well, despite what many competitors and faux-academics have contended. Mind you, there's still a lot of room for improvement.

Today we know that there are people behind sites and documents. Facebook understood that people were 'hiding' behind websites and they wanted to reveal who was visiting (and Liking) those sites. Google, on the other hand, seems more interested in who created those websites and documents. They're looking to augment the web of links with the web of people. That's why identity is so important.

Without identity Google can't create a web of people. They can't mine the interactions on G+ to determine trust and influence. They need a primary key for establishing a new social database and name makes a whole lot of sense.

Yes, Google will want alternate email addresses, pseudonyms and even usernames, but they need something to pivot around. Mapping the social graph necessitates this type of approach. Google's already pretty good at this, which is why you may be presented with suggested links in your Google Profile. One look at your Social Connections should give you an idea of how much Google knows. (Really, go look at this today!)

SEO

Carrots

The carrot that Google can wave to encourage identity is search. Rel="author" is the first overt way that Google is rewarding identity in search results. But that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as I can tell.

Getting your smiling mug on search results will certainly help your click-through rate and boost your ego, but long term Google can begin to map all of your social interactions. They'll encourage you to link more and more of your digital self so they can confidently perform this analysis.

I'm a firm believer that Google has a GIGO problem. The explosion of digital content has made everyone an author, an expert and pundit. Jason Calacanis certainly doesn't suffer fools gladly.

There are a lot of stupid people out there ... and stupid people shouldn't write.

I don't agree with that statement but I do with what Jason said next.

There needs to be a better system for tuning down the stupid people and tuning up the smart people.

Google needs a better way to sift through and determine quality in an age where content can be produced and distributed with such ease.

Instead of going from the document level and building up, what if you used an 'author' filter? Google's Panda update created an A and B pile for site quality. Google could do the same for author quality. Yes, it's a scary thought that Google might pass judgement on your corpus of content, but in the end that's pretty much their job.

This doesn't mean that B pile authored content wouldn't rank, but it may need to exhibit other signals to outrank A pile authored content.

AuthorRank

AuthorRank

AuthorRank will help augment the rickety link graph. The reliance on a Google Profile, insistence on a real name, the implementation of rel="author" and the whole of G+ makes me believe that authorship is a vital part of how Google wants to measure the web. I'm hopeful that Google can determine a better way to measure these social gestures, beyond what KloutPeerIndex or others currently provide.

Could Google transform trust and influence from a popularity contest to a meritocracy?

Google could look at the speed of sharing. If the time between my interaction with that content and my sharing of that content is too short, I'd like that to count less. This may eliminate much of the robo-syndication that persists today and even reduce the sheep and ego mentality of promoting luminary content.

In addition, comments are a rich source of data, both as meta data on the shared piece of content but as a signal of depth and breadth of engagement. You'll have noted that some of the Internet famous get a slew of comments on G+. But how many of them are in the 'brilliant post', 'totally agree' and 'Yes!' variety? What percentage of your comments are productive versus congratulatory?

AuthorRank could provide real value to search right out of the gate. Imagine if blogs without real identity were given less prominence? Suddenly splogs would disappear as would many of the exact match keyword domains with MFA (Made for AdSense or Made for Amazon) content.

TL;DR

Google+ requires identity so it can confidently map a web of people and use authorship to better refine search results. In the process, and as an added bonus, they may also break Facebook's monopoly on attention.

Google+ Review

July 07 2011 // Social Media + Technology // 19 Comments

(This post is an experiment of sorts since I'm publishing it before my usual hard core editing. I'll be going back later to edit and reorganize so that it's a bit less Jack Kerouac in style. I wanted to publish this version now so I could get some feedback and get back to my client work. You've been warned.)

I've been on Google+ for one week now and have collected some thoughts on the service. This won't be a tips and tricks style post since I believe G+ (that's the cool way to reference it now) will evolve quickly and what we're currently seeing is a minimum viable product (MVP).

In fact, while I have enjoyed the responsiveness that the G+ team has shown, it echoes what I heard during Buzz. One of my complaints about Buzz was that they didn't iterate fast enough. So G+, please go ahead and break things in the name of speed. Ignore the howling in the interim.

Circles

Circles is clearly the big selling point for G+. I was a big fan of the presentation Paul Adams put together last year that clearly serves as the foundation to Circles. The core concept was that the way you share offline should be mirrored online. My family and high school friends probably don't want to be overwhelmed with all the SEO related content I share. And if you want to share a personal or intimate update, you might want to only share that with family or friends.

It made perfect sense ... in theory.

I'm not sure Circles works in practice, or at least not the way many though they would. The flexibility of Circles could be its achilles heel. I have watched people create a massive ordered list of Circles for every discrete set of people. Conversely, I've seen others just lump everyone into a big Circle. Those in the latter seem unsettled, thinking that they're doing something wrong by not creating more Circles.

Of course there is no right or wrong way to use Circles.

But I believe there are two forces at work here that influence the value of Circles. First is the idea of configuration. I don't think many people want to invest time into building Circles. These Circles are essentially lists, which have been tried on both Facebook and Twitter. Yet, both of these two social giants have relegated lists in their user interface. Was this because people didn't set them up? Or that once they set them up they didn't use them?

I sense that Facebook and Twitter may have realized that the stated need for lists or Circles simply didn't show up in real life usage. This is one of those problems with qualitative research. Sometimes people say one thing and do another.

As an aside, I think most people would say that more is better. That's why lists sound so attractive. Suddenly you can really organize and you'll have all these lists and you'll feel ... better. But there is compelling research that shows that more choice leads to less satisfaction. Barry Schwartz dubbed it The Paradox of Choice.

The Paradox of Choice has been demonstrated with jam, where sales were higher when consumers had three choices instead of thirty. It's also been proven in looking at 401k participation, the more mutual fund choices available, the lower the participation in the 401k program.

Overwhelmed with options, we often simply opt-out of the decision and walk away. And even when we do decide, we are often less satisfied since we're unsure we've made the right selection. Those who scramble to create a lot of lists could fall prey to the Paradox of Choice. That's not the type of user experience you want.

The second thing at work here is the notion that people want to share online as they do offline. Is that a valid assumption? Clearly, if you're into cycling (like I am) you probably only want to share your Tour de France thoughts with other cyclists. But the sharing dynamic may have changed. I wrote before that Google has a Heisenberg problem in relation to measuring the link graph. That by the act of measuring the link graph they have forever changed it.

I think we may have the same problem in relation to online sharing. By sharing online we've forever changed the way we share.

If I interpret what FriendFeed (which is the DNA for everything you're seeing right now), and particularly Paul Buchheit envisioned, it was that people should share more openly. That by sharing more, you could shine light on the dark corners of life. People could stop feeling like they were strange, alone or embarrassed. Facebook too seems to have this same ethos, though perhaps for different reasons - or not. And I think many of us have adopted this new way of sharing. Whether it was done intentionally at first or not becomes moot.

So G+ is, in some ways, rooted in the past, of the way we used to share.

Even if you don't believe that people are now more willing to share more broadly, I think there are a great many differences in how we share offline versus how we share online. First, the type and availability of content is far greater online. Tumblr quotes, LOLcats, photos and a host of other types of media are quickly disseminated. The Internet has seen an explosion of digital content that runs through a newly built social infrastructure. In the past, you might share some of the things you'd seen recently at a BBQ or the next time you saw your book group. Not anymore.

Also, the benchmark for sharing content online is far lower than it is offline. The ease with which you can share online means you share more. The share buttons are everywhere and social proof is a powerful mechanism.

You also can't touch and feel any of this stuff. For instance, think about the traditional way you sell offline. The goal is to get the customer to hold the product, because that greatly increases the odds they'll purchase. But that's an impossibility online.

Finally, you probably share with more people. The social infrastructure built over the last five years has allowed us to reconnect with people from the past. We continue to share with weak ties. I'm concerned about this since I believe holding onto the past may prevent us from growing. I'm a firm believer in Dunbar's number, so the extra people we choose to share with wind up being noise. Social entropy must be allowed to take place.

Now Circles might support that since you can drop people into a 'people I don't care about' Circle that is never used. (I don't have this Circle, I'm just saying you could!) But then you simply wind up with a couple of Circles that you use on a frequent basis. In addition, the asynchronous model encourages people to connect with more people which flies in the face of this hardwired number of social connections we can maintain.

Lists and circles also rarely work for digesting content. Circles is clearly a nice way to segment and share your content with the 'right' people. But I don't think Circles are very good as a content viewing device.

You might make a Circle for your family. Makes perfect sense. And you might then share important and potentially sensitive information using this Circle. But when you look at the content feed from that Circle, what do you get? It would not just be sensitive family information.

If your brother is Robert Scoble you'd see a boat load of stuff there. That's an extreme example, but lets bring it to the more mundane example of, say, someone who is a diehard sports fan. Maybe that family member would share only with his sports buddies, but a lot of folks are just going to broadcast publicly and so you get everything from that person.

To put it more bluntly, people are not one-dimensional.

I love bicycling. I also have a passion for search and SEO. I also enjoy books, UX, LOLcats and am a huge Kasabian fan. If you put me in an SEO Circle, there's a good chance you'll get LOLcats and Kasabian lyrics mixed in with my SEO stuff. In fact, most of my stuff is on Public, so you'll get a fire hose of my material right now.

Circles is good for providing a more relevant sharing mechanism, but I think it's a bit of a square peg in a round hole when it comes to digesting content. That's further exacerbated by the fact that the filtering capabilities for content are essentially on and off (mute) right now.

Sure, you could segment your Circles ever more finely until you found the people who were just talking about the topic you were interested in, but that would be a small group probably and if you had more than just one interest (which is, well, pretty much everyone) then you'll need lots of Circles. And with lots of Circles you run into the Paradox of Choice.

Conversation

I've never been a fan of using Twitter to hold conversations. The clipped and asynchronous style of banter just doesn't do it for me. FriendFeed was (is?) the place where you could hold real debate and discussion. It provided long-form commenting ability.

G+ does a good job fostering conversation, but the content currently being shared and some of the feature limitations may be crushing long-form discussions and instead encouraging 'reactions'.

I don't want a stream of 6 word You Tube like comments. That doesn't add value. I'm purposefully using this terminology because I think delivering value is important to Google. Comments should add value and there is a difference in comment quality. And yes, you can influence the quality of comments.

Because if the comments and discussion are engaging you will win my attention. And that is what I believe is most important in the social arms race we're about to witness.

Attention

There is a war for your attention and Facebook has been winning. G+ must fracture that attention before Facebook really begins to leverage the Open Graph and provide search and discovery features. As it stands Facebook is a search engine. The News Feed is simply a passive search experience based on your social connections and preferences. Google's talked a lot about being psychic and knowing what you want before you do. Facebook is well on their way there in some ways.

User Interface

If it's one thing that Google got right it was the Red Number user interface. It is by far the most impressive part of the experience and feeds your G+ addiction and retains your attention.

The Red Number sits at the top of the page on G+, Google Reader, Google Search and various other Google products. It is nearly omnipresent in my own existence. (Thank goodness it's not on Google Analytics or I really wouldn't get any work done.) The red number indicator is both a notifier, navigation and engagement feature all-in-one. It is epic.

It is almost scary though, since you can't help but want to check what's going on when that number lights up and begins to increment. It's Pavlovian in nature. It inspired me to put together a quick LOLcat mashup.

OMG WTF Red Number!

It draws you in (again and again) and keeps you engaged. It's a very slick user interface and Google is smart to integrate this across as many properties as possible. This one user interface may be the way that G+ wins in the long-run since they'll have time to work out the kinks while training us to respond to that red number. The only way it fails is if that red number never lights up.

I'll give G+ credit for reducing a lot of the friction around posting and commenting. The interactions are intuitive but are hamstrung by Circles as well as the display and ordering of content.

Content

There is no easy way to add content to G+ right now. In my opinion, this is hugely important because content is the kindling to conversation. Good content begets good conversation. Sure we could all resort to creating content on G+ through posting directly, but that's going to get old quickly. And Sparks as it now stands is not effective in the slightest. Sorry but this is one feature that seems half-done (and that's being generous.) Right now the content through Sparks is akin to a very unfocused Google alert.

I may be in the minority in thinking that social interactions happen around content, topics and ideas far more often than they do around people. I might interact with people I'm close to on a more personal level, responding to check-ins and status updates but for the most part I believe it's about the content we're all seeing and sharing.

I really don't care if you updated your profile photo. (Again, I should be able to not see these by default if I don't want to.)

Good content will drive conversation and engagement. The easiest way to effect that is by aggregating the streams of content we already produce. This blog, my YouTube favorites, my Delicious bookmarks, my Google Reader favorites, my Last.fm favorites and on and on and on. Yes, this is exactly what FriendFeed did and it has, in many ways, failed. As much as I love the service, it never caught on with the mainstream.

I think some of this had to do with configuration. You had to configure the content streams and those content streams didn't necessarily have to be yours. But we've moved on quite a bit since FriendFeed was introduced and Google is adhering to the Quora model, and requiring people to use their real names on their profiles.

Google is seeking to create a better form of identify, a unified form of identity it can then leverage for a type of PeopleRank signal that can inform trust and authority in search and elsewhere. But identity on the web is fairly transparent as we all have learned from Rapleaf and others who still map social profiles across the web. Google could quite easily find those outposts and prompt you to confirm and add them to your Google profile.

Again, we've all become far more public and even if email is not the primary key, the name and even username can be used with a fairly high degree of confidence. Long story short, Google can short-circuit the configuration problem around content feeds and greatly reduce the friction of contributing valuable content to G+.

By flowing content into G+, you would also increase the odds of that red number lighting up. So even if I haven't visited G+ in a day (heck I can't go an hour right now unless I'm sleeping) you might get drawn back in because someone gave your Last.fm favorite a +1. Suddenly you want to know who likes the same type of music you do and you're hooked again.

Display

What we're talking about here is aggregation, which has turned into a type of dirty word lately. And right now Google isn't prepared for these types of content feeds. They haven't fixed duplication detection so I see the same posts over and over again. And there are some other factors in play here that I think need to be fixed prior to bringing in more content.

People don't quite understand Circles and seem compelled to share content with their own Circles. The +1 button should really do this, but then you might have to make the +1 button conditional based on your Circles (e.g. - I want to +1 this bicycling post to my TDF Circle.) That level of complexity isn't going to work.

At a minimum they'll need to collapse all of the shares into one 'story', with the dominant story being the one that you've interacted with or, barring prior interaction, the one that comes from someone in your Circle and if there are more than one from your Circle then the most recent or first from that group.

In addition, while the red number interface does deliver the active discussions to me, I think the order of content in the feed will need to change. Once I interact on an item it should be given more weight and float to the top more often, particularly if someone I have in my Circles is contributing to the discussion there.

Long-term it would also be nice to pin certain posts to the top of a feed if I'm interested in following the actual conversation as it unfolds.

The display of content needs to get better before G+ can confidently aggregate more content sources.

Privacy

One of the big issues, purportedly, is privacy. I frankly believe that the privacy issue is way overblown. (Throw your stones now.) As an old school direct marketer I know I can get a tremendous amount of information about a person, all from their offline transactions and interactions.

Even without that knowledge, it's clear that people might talk about privacy but they don't do much about it. If people truly valued privacy and thought Facebook was violating that privacy you'd see people shuttering their accounts. And not just the few Internati out there who do so to prove a point but everyday people. But that's just not happening.

People say one thing, but do another. They say they value privacy but then they'll give it away for a chance to win the new car sitting in the local mall.

Also, it's very clear that people do have a filter for what they share on social networks. The incidents where this doesn't happen make great headlines, but the behavioral survey work showing a hesitance to share certain topics on Facebook make it clear we're not in full broadcast mode.

But for the moment lets say that privacy is one of the selling points of G+. The problem is that the asymmetric sharing model exposes a lot more than you might think. Early on, I quipped that the best use of G+ was to stalk Google employees. I think a few people took this the wrong way, and I understand that.

But my point was that it was very easy to find people on G+. In fact, it is amazingly simple to skim the social graph. In particular, by looking at who someone has in their Circles and who has that person in their Circles.

So, why wouldn't I be interested in following folks at Google? In general, they're a very intelligent, helpful and amiable bunch. My Google circle grew. It grew to 300 rather quickly by simply skimming the Circles for some prominent Googlers.

The next day or so I did this every once in a while. I didn't really put that much effort into it. The interface for finding and adding people is quite good - very fluid. So, I got to about 700 in three or four days. And during that time the suggested users feature began to help out, providing me with a never ending string of Googlers for me to add.

But you know what else happened? It suggested people who were clearly Googlers but were not broadcasting that fact. How do I know that? Well, if 80% of your Circle are Googlers, and 80% of the people who have you in Circles are Googlers there's a good change you're a Googler. Being a bit OCD I didn't automatically add these folks to my Google Circle but their social graph led me to others (bonus!) and if I could verify through other means - their posts or activity elsewhere on the Internet - then I'd add them.

How many people do I have in my Google circle today?

Google Employees G+ Circle

Now, perhaps people are okay with this. In fact, I'm okay with it. But if privacy is a G+ benefit, I don't think it succeeds. Too many people will be upset by this level of transparency. Does the very private Google really want someone to be parsing the daily output of its employees? I'm harmless but others might be trolling for something more.

G+ creates this friction because of the asymmetric sharing model and the notion that you only have to share with the people in your circles. Circles ensures your content is compartmentalized and safe. But it exposes your social graph in a way that people might not expect or want.

Yes, I know there are ways to manage this exposure, but configuration of your privacy isn't very effective. Haven't we learned this yet?

Simplicity

Circles also has an issue with simplicity. Creating Circles is very straight forward but how content in those Circles is transmitted is a bit of a mystery to many. So much so that there are diagrams showing how and who will see your content based on the Circle permutations. While people might make diagrams just for the fun of it, I think these diagrams are an indication that the underlying information architecture might be too complex for mainstream users. Or maybe they won't care. But if sharing with the 'right' people is the main selling point, this will muddy the waters.

At present there are a lot of early adopters on G+ and many are hell bent on kissing up to the Google team at every turn. Don't get me wrong, I am rooting for G+. I like Google and the people that work there and I've never been a Facebook fan. But my marketing background kicks in hard. I know I'm not the target market. In fact, most of the people I know aren't the target market. I wonder if G+ really understands this or not.

Because while my feed was filled with people laughing at Mark Zuckerberg and his 'awesome' announcement, I think they missed something, something very fundamental.

Keep it Simple Stupid

Yes, hangouts (video chat) with 10 people are interesting and sort of fun. But is that the primary use case for video chat? No, it's not. This idea that 1 to 1 video chat is so dreadful and small-minded is simply misguided. Because what Facebook said was that they worked on making that video chat experience super easy to use. It's not about the Internati using video chat, it's about your grandparents using video chat.

Mark deftly avoided the G+ question but then, he couldn't help himself. He brought up the background behind Groups. I'm paraphrasing here, but Zuckerberg essentially said that Groups flourished because everyone knew each other (that's an eye poke at the asymmetric sharing model) and that ad hoc Groups were vitally important since people didn't want to spend time configuring lists. Again, this is - in my opinion - a swipe at Circles. In many ways, Zuck is saying that lists fail and that content sharing permissions are done on an ad hoc basis.

Instead of asking people to configure Circles and manage and maintain them Facebook is making it easier to just assemble them on the fly through Groups. And the EdgeRank algorithm that separates your Top News from Recent News is their way of delivering the right content to you based on your preferences and interactions. I believe their goal is to automagically make the feed relevant to you instead of forcing the user to create that relevance.

Sure there's a filter bubble argument to be made, but give Facebook credit for having the Recent News tab prominently displayed in the interface.

But G+ could do something like this. In fact, they're better placed than Facebook to deliver a feed of relevant information based on the tie-ins to other products. Right now there is essentially no tie in at all, which is frustrating. A +1 on a website does not behave as a Like. It does not send that page or site to my Public G+ feed. Nor does Google seem to be using Google Reader or Gmail as ways to determine what might be more interesting to me and who really I'm interacting with.

G+

I'm addicted to G+ so they're doing something right. But remember, I'm not the target market.

I see a lot of potential with G+ (and I desperately want it to succeed) but I worry that social might not be in their DNA, that they might be chasing a mirage that others have already dismissed and that they might be too analytical for their own good.

Open Graph Business Intelligence

April 06 2011 // Social Media + Technology // 1 Comment

Facebook's Open Graph can be used as a valuable business intelligence tool.

Here's how easy it can be to find out more about the people powering social media on your favorite sites.

How It Works

The Open Graph is populated with meta tags. One of these tags is fb:admins which is a list of Facebook user IDs.

fb:admins open graph tag

Here we are on a Time article that is clearly using the Open Graph.

Sample Time.com Article

The fb:admins tag is generally found on the home page (or root) of a site because that's one of the ways you grant people access to Insights for Websites.

Lint Bookmarklet

You could open up a new tab and go to the Facebook Linter Tool to enter the domain or you can use my handy Bookmarklet that gives you one-click access to Lint that site.

Get Lint Info

Drag the link above to your bookmark bar and then click on it anytime you want to get information about the Open Graph mark-up from that site's home page.

Linter Results

The results will often include a list of Facebook IDs. In this instance there are 8 administrators on the Time domain.

Facebook Lint for Time

Click on each ID to learn as much as that person's privacy settings will allow. You can find out quite a bit when you do this.

In this instance I've identified Time's Technical Lead, a Senior Program Manager (with a balloon decorating company on the side), a bogus test account (against Facebook rules) and the Program Manager, Developer Relations for ... Facebook.

I guess it makes sense that Time would get some special attention from Facebook. Still, it raised my eyebrows to see a Facebook staffer as a Time administrator.

Cat Lee

Cat actually snagged 'cat' as her Facebook name (nicely done!) and says her favorite football team is the Eagles. I might be able to strike up a conversation with her about that. Go Eagles!

I'd probably also ask her why a fake test account is being used by Time.

Tester Time on Facebook

That is unless Time really does have a satanic handball enthusiast on staff.

Dig Deeper

Sometimes a site won't use fb:admins but will authenticate using fb:app_id instead. But that doesn't mean your sleuthing has come to an end. Click on the App ID number and you'll usually go to that application.

Time Facebook Application Developer Information

By clicking on Info I'm able to view a list of Developers. Some of these I've already seen via fb:admins but two of them are actually new, providing a more robust picture of Time's social media efforts and resources.

You'll only be stymied if the site is using fb:page_id to authenticate. That's generally a dead end for business intelligence.

Open Graph Business Intelligence

I imagine this type of information might be of interest to a wide variety or people from recruiters to journalists to sales and business development professionals. You could use this technique on its own or collect the names and use LinkedIn and Google to create a more accurate picture of those individuals.

How would you use this information?

Google +1 Analysis

March 31 2011 // SEO + Social Media // 12 Comments

Yesterday Google launched Google +1. After firing up Haircut 100 and reading Danny Sullivan's review I sat down and gave Google +1 a try myself. Here's what I learned and why I think Google +1 is the start of a war for social data and your attention.

Google +1

What is Google +1?

Google +1 delivers a new set of social search results based on explicit recommendations from your social graph. Right now, those recommendations are made by clicking the +1 button next to a search result - both organic and paid.

In the future, users will be able to recommend content from sites that present the +1 button. At that point, Google +1 will behave similar to a Facebook Like.

All +1s are aggregated and presented on a +1's tab on your Google profile, which begins to look like a social networking platform.

Google +1 User Experience

Google +1 is a heavy feature on the page, with the icon appearing next to every result on a SERP. Do we really need more to look at? The +1 icon (and instant preview icon) will animate and 'light up' as you mouse over any part of that search result.

Google +1 User Experience

These features have nothing to do with each other yet they are presented to the user by the same action. I understand these are 'actions' a user can take on a search result but I'm not sure that's intuitive.

Will the mainstream user even grok the +1 nomenclature? I do, but will the mom in suburban Omaha? Facebook was brilliant in using a term and icon that was instantly recognizable.

I also find the +1 mechanism strange in search results. Am I supposed to search, visit a site and return to the SERP to +1 that result? If search is about discovery, how would I make a judgement on a search result before visiting that site? Am I supposed to search for a whole bunch of stuff I already like so I can +1 those results?

If Google wants to put +1 in search results I think it makes more sense to model their block sites feature that only activates after I've visited a site and returned to search results. Alternatively, Google could use web history and only present a +1 option for those pages I have visited.

In the end, it'll make a lot more sense when there are Google +1 buttons on websites and the search results reflect the +1 count from that page.

Google +1 Social Data

We all know that the link graph is a mess and that Google is seeking other ways to measure trust and authority. I don't think the web of links will die out altogether but it certainly needs to be augmented with the web of people.

Google +1 Social Data

I don't think Google wants to rely on Twitter and Facebook for such an important and emerging part of understanding web behavior. Twitter has been civil but the frog boiling of their developer platform is ominous. Facebook has been outright hostile and recently took steps to hide even more web content from Google.

Social signals matter and Google +1 gives Google their own explicit source of social data.

Google +1 allows Google to mine both your personal social graph (your friends who have +1'd items) but also the +1 graph (the popularity of an item based on all +1 activity.)

One has to believe that Google profiles will become some sort of social nexus where further meta information can be attached to +1s. Today it's a simple list of +1 pages. Tomorrow I might be able to comment on your +1s or Yo Dawg your +1 by giving it a +1. Social proof, curation and the wisdom (or not) of crowds could rise in importance.

As Google begins to look at the +1 data, they may be able to find individuals who have more influence. Not just overall influence but influence for a specific topic.

This means that over time Google could weight a +1 from one individual on a sliding scale. A +1 from yours truly on an SEO site might carry a lot of weight, while a +1 from me on a knitting site might carry little weight.

By mapping topical influence, Google may be able to avoid +1 gaming.

Google +1 Personalization

What does this mean for search and SEO specifically? Google +1 may change the nature of search personalization. The difference between a standard result and a personalized result could get bigger and that would be an interesting SEO development.

Right now, Google's personalization doesn't disrupt traditional SEO. Google (and a many SEOs) talk about it a lot and they have increased the number of queries they personalize, but the personalization is still rather subtle in nature. A result might move up and down a place or two, but not from the top of page 1 to the middle of page 2.

Google +1 might change that. Search results could behave more like Facebook's EdgeRank, which radically changes what each individual sees and experiences.

Google +1 Attention

Google +1 makes Google less reliant on competitors for social data and should help them improve search results. But is that really Google's only goal?

In order to +1 things, you first need a public Google profile. This helps people see who recommended that tasty recipe or great campsite. When you create a profile, it's visible to anyone and connections with your email address can easily find it.

Your +1’s are stored in a new tab on your Google profile. You can show your +1’s tab to the world, or keep it private and just use it to personally manage the ever-expanding record of things you love around the web.

Google profiles could enter the war for user attention, currently being won (handily) by Facebook. People spend enormous amounts of time on Facebook, and that's dangerous since it's only a matter of time before Facebook becomes a real search competitor.

We've seen Google redesign Google profiles and got a glimpse into future social connections like FourSquare and Github. Google profiles contains rich feeds of information from Buzz, PicasaWeb and +1. Google has also paid close attention to privacy, learning from their mistake with Buzz. It all adds up to making Google profiles a true destination for social information.

Google could claim some level of success if Google +1 slows the adoption or ubiquity of Facebook's Like button. Fracturing Facebook's hold on attention seems like the end game.

Google +1 and Circles

Take a spin over to your Google Dashboard and you'll find the (no longer) mythical Circles feature.

Google Social Circle and Content

Click on View social circle and you get an idea of how far along Google is on their social product.

Googel Social Circle

Google has constructed their own social graph and are now building features and user facing tools on top of this expanding data structure. I'd argue that +1 is a data feed to further support a still emerging social networking product.

Will Google +1 work?

Google does not have a good track record when it comes to social, including SearchWiki, Stars, Wave and even Buzz.

The current search interface for creating and viewing +1s seems clunky and the entire visual field seems both too saturated and nebulous at the same time. But I'll hold judgement until +1 buttons show up on websites. It's then that mainstream users might better understand the functionality.

From a search quality perspective, I believe results could get better, but it's not a fait accompli. The integrity of a user's social graph will be paramount. How large is that social graph? Does it contain strong ties or weak ties? Which nodes in a social graph are more meaningful or influential? (e.g. - a +1 from your best friend might mean more than a +1 from someone you met once at a conference.)

Facebook is ahead of the game here with their EdgeRank algorithm. Google will need to further develop their own to make personalized search successful.

If Google really wants to take this to the next level, make a +1 bookmarklet (or bundle it with Toolbar or Chrome for wider use.) That way I can +1 sites and pages that don't have the button on their site. This would expand the reach of social search beyond just those sites savvy enough to implement the buttons.

At the end of the day I think Google needs +1 to work, if for no other reason then to have an independent source of social data. The war for social data and your attention may have begun in earnest.

Google Personalized Search

March 21 2011 // SEO + Social Media + Technology // Comment

Google recently launched a new feature that allows users to personalize their search results by blocking certain domains. What impact will this have and what does it mean for the future of search?

The Smiths

Artificial Intelligence

A recent New York Post article by Peter Norvig discussed advances in artificial intelligence. Instead of creating HAL, the current philosophy is to allow both human and computer to concentrate on what they do best.

A good example is the web search engine, which uses A.I. (and other technology) to sort through billions of web pages to give you the most relevant pages for your query. It does this far better and faster than any human could manage. But the search engine still relies on the human to make the final judgment: which link to click on, and how to interpret the resulting page.

The partnership between human and machine is stronger than either one alone. As Werner von Braun said when he was asked what sort of computer should be put onboard in future space missions, “Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft, and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor.” There is no need to replace humans; rather, we should think of what tools will make them more productive.

I like where this might be leading and absolutely love the idea of personalized results. Let me shape my own search results!

Human Computer Information Retrieval

I've been reading a lot about HCIR lately. It's a fascinating area of research that could truly change how we search. Implemented the right way, search would become very personal and very powerful.

The challenge seems to be creating effective human computer refinement interfaces. Or, more specifically, interfaces that produce active refinement, not passive refinement.

At present, Google uses a lot of passive refinement to personalize results. They look at an individual's search and web history, track click-through rate and pogosticking on SERPs and add a layer of geolocation.

Getting users to actively participate has been a problem for Google.

Jerry Maguire

A Brief History of Google Personalization

Google launched personalized search in June of 2005 and expanded their efforts in February of 2007. But the first major foray into soliciting active refinement was in November of 2008 with the launch of SearchWiki.

This new feature is an example of how search is becoming increasingly dynamic, giving people tools that make search even more useful to them in their daily lives.

The problem was that no one really used SearchWiki. In the end it was simply too complicated and couldn't compete with other elements on the page, including the rising prominence of universal search results and additional Onebox presentations.

In December of 2009 Google expanded the reach of personalized search.

What we're doing today is expanding Personalized Search so that we can provide it to signed-out users as well. This addition enables us to customize search results for you based upon 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser.

This didn't go down so well with a number of privacy folks. However, I believe it showed that Google felt personalized search did benefit users. They also probably wanted to expand their data set.

In March of 2010 SearchWiki was retired with the launch of Stars.

With stars, we've created a lightweight and flexible way for people to mark and rediscover web content.

Stars wasn't really about personalizing results. It presented relevant bookmarks at the top of your search results. Google clearly learned that the interaction design for SearchWiki wasn't working. The Stars interaction design was far easier, but the feature benefits weren't compelling enough.

A year later, Stars is replaced with blocked sites.

We’re adding this feature because we believe giving you control over the results you find will provide an even more personalized and enjoyable experience on Google.

Actually, I'm not sure what this feature is called. Are we blocking sites or hiding sites? The lack of product marketing surrounding this feature makes me think it was rushed into production.

In addition, the interaction design of the feature is essentially the same as FriendFeed's hide functionality. Perhaps that's why the messaging is so confused.

Cribbing the FriendFeed hide feature isn't a bad thing - it's simple, elegant and powerful. In fact, I hope Google adopts the extended feature set and allows results from a blocked site to be surfaced if it is recommended by someone in my social graph.

Can Google Engage Users?

I wish Google would have launched the block feature more aggressively and before any large scale algorithmic changes. The staging of these developments points to a lack of confidence in engaging users to refine search results.

Google hasn't solved the active engagement problem. Other Google products that rely on active engagement have also failed to dazzle, including Google Wave and Google Buzz.

I worry that this short-coming may cause Google to focus on leveraging engagement rather then working on ways to increase the breadth and depth of engagement.

In addition, while we’re not currently using the domains people block as a signal in ranking, we’ll look at the data and see whether it would be useful as we continue to evaluate and improve our search results in the future.

This may simply be a way to reserve the right to use the data in the future. And, in general, I don't have a problem with using the data as long as it's used in moderation.

Curated data can help augment the algorithm. Yet, it is a slippery slope. The influence of others shouldn't have a dramatic effect on my search results and certainly should not lead to sites being removed from results altogether.

That's not personalization, that's censorship.

SERPs are not Snowflakes

All of Google's search personalization has been relatively subtle and innocuous. Rank is still meaningful despite claims by chicken little SEOs. I'm not sure what reports they're looking at, but the variation in rank on terms due to personalization is still low.

SERPs are not Snowflakes

Even when personalization is applied, it is rarely a game changer. You'll see small movement within the rankings, but not wild changes. I can still track and trend average rank, even with personalization becoming more commonplace. Given the amount of bucket testing Google is doing I can't even say that the observed differences can be attributed solely to personalization.

I don't use rankings as a way to steer my SEO efforts, but to think rank is no longer useful as a measurement device is wrong. Yet, personalization still has the potential to be disruptive.

The Future of Search Personalization

Google needs to increase the level of active human interaction with search results. They need our help to take search to the next level. Yet, most of what I hear lately is about Google trying to predict search behavior. Have they given up on us? I hope not.

Gary Marchionini, a leader in the HCIR field, puts forth a number of goals for HCIR systems. Among them are a few that I think bear repeating.

Systems should increase user responsibility as well as control; that is, information systems require human intellectual effort, and good effort is rewarded.

Systems should be engaging and fun to use.

The idea that the process should be engaging, fun to use and that good effort is rewarded sounds a lot like game mechanics. Imagine if Google could get people to engage search results on the same level as they engage with World of Warcraft!

World of Google

Might a percentage complete device, popularized by LinkedIn, increase engagement? Maybe, like StackOverflow, certain search features are only available (or unlocked) once a user has invested time and effort? Game mechanics not only increases engagement but helps introduce, educate and train users on that product or system.

Gamification of search is just one way you could try to tackle the active engagement problem. There are plenty of other avenues available.

Personalization and SEO

I used the cover artwork from the Smith's last studio album at the beginning of this post. I thought 'Strangeways, Here We Come' was an apt description for the potential future of personalized search. However, a popular track from this album may be more meaningful.

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before.

SEO is not dead, nor will it die as a result of personalization. The industry will continue to evolve and grow. Personalization will only hasten the integration of numerous other related fields (UX and CRO among others) into SEO.

The block site feature is a step in the right direction because it allows control and refinement of the search experience transparently without impacting others. It could be the start of a revolution in search. Yet ... I have heard this one before.

Lets hope Google has another album left in them.

Facebook Comments and SEO

March 16 2011 // SEO + Social Media + Technology // 24 Comments

Facebook Comments could be the most disruptive feature released by Facebook. Why? Comments are one of the largest sources of meta content on the web. Our conversations provide a valuable feedback mechanism, giving greater context to both users and to search engines.

The Walled Garden

Using Firebug you can quickly locate Facebook Comments and determine how they're being rendered. Facebook Comments are served in an iframe.

Facebook Comments Delivered in iFrame

This means that the comments are not going to be attributed to that page or site nor seen by search engines. In short, Facebook Comments reside in the walled garden. All your comments are belong to Facebook.

This differs from implementations like Disqus or IntenseDebate where the comments are 'on the page' or 'in-line'. One of the easier ways to understand this is to grab comment text from each platform and search for it on Google. Remember to put the entire text in quotes so you're searching for that exact comment phrase.

Disqus Comments

Here's a comment I made at Search Engine Roundtable via Disqus.

Comment on Disqus

Here's a search for that comment on Google.

Disqus Comment SERP

Sure enough you can find my comment directly at Search Engine Roundtable or at FriendFeed, where I import my Disqus comments.

Facebook Comments

Here's a comment made via Facebook Comments on TechCrunch.

Comment made via Facebook Comments

Here's a search for this comment on Google.

Facebook Comments SERP

In this instance you can't find this comment via search (even on Bing). The comment doesn't exist outside of Facebook's walled garden. It doesn't resolve back to TechCrunch.

I thought of an edge case where Facebook Comments might show up on FriendFeed (via Facebook), but my test indicates they do not.

Comments and SEO

Search engines won't see Facebook Comments. That is a big deal. Comments reflect the user syntax. They capture how people are really talking about a topic or product. Comments help search engines to create keyword clusters and deliver long-tail searches. Comments may signal that the content is still fresh, important and popular. All that goes by the wayside.

It's no secret that search engines crave text. Depriving Google of this valuable source of text is an aggressive move by Facebook.

Is this on purpose? I have to believe it is. I can't know for sure but it's curious that my Quora question has gone unanswered by Facebook, even when I've asked a specific Facebook Engineer to answer.

[Update] Ray C. He did wind up answering my question and provided some examples of how Facebook comments could be made visible to search engines. (Thank you.) Essentially you grab the comments via the API and display them inline behind the comment box, similar to using a noscript tag. It's nice that they have this capability but most will simply use the default version without question or not apply this hack due to lack of technical expertise or time.

In addition, many have since noted that Google has started indexing Facebook comments. Problem solved right? Wrong! Google has always reserved the right to associate iframe content with a URL when it felt it was important. It just rarely did so. The truth of the matter is Google is still only indexing a small fraction of Facebook comments overall. So don't count on Google indexing your Facebook comments.

Comment Spam

Comment Spam

Comment spam is a huge problem. You know this if you've managed a blog for any amount of time. Google's implementation of nofollow didn't do much to stop this practice. So Facebook Comments is appealing to many since the forced identity will curtail most, if not all, of the comment spam.

This also means that the meta content for sites using Facebook Comments may be more pristine. This should be an advantage when Facebook does any type of Natural Language Processing on this data. A cleaner data set can't hurt.

Article Sentiment

Extending this idea, you begin to realize that Facebook could have a real leg up on determining the sentiment of an article or blog post. Others might be able to parse Tweets or other indicators, but Facebook would have access to a large amount of proprietary content to mine page level and domain level sentiment.

Comment Reputation

Facebook can improve on sentiment by looking at comment reputation. Here's where it gets exciting and scary all at the same time. Facebook can map people and their comments to Open Graph objects. It sounds a bit mundane but I think it's a huge playground.

Suddenly, Facebook could know who carries a high reputation on certain types of content. Where did you comment? How many replies did you receive? What was the sentiment of those replies? What was the reputation for those who replied to you? How many Likes did you receive? How many times have you commented on the same Open Graph object as someone else?

You might be highly influential when commenting on technology but not at all when commenting on sports.

The amount of analysis that could be performed at the intersection of people, comments and objects is ... amazing. Facebook knows who is saying what as well as when and where they're saying it.

PeopleRank

PeopleRank

Facebook Comments could go a long way in helping Facebook create a PeopleRank algorithm that would help them better rank pages for their users. If I haven't said it recently, Facebook's Open Graph is just another version of Google's Search Index.

In this instance, Facebook seems to be doing everything it can to develop an alternate way of ranking the web's content while preventing Google from doing so. (Or am I projecting my own paranoia on the situation?)

PeopleRank could replace PageRank as the dominant way to organize content.

Traffic Channel Disruption

The traffic implications of Facebook Comments are substantial. By removing this content from the web, Facebook could reduce the ability of Google and Bing to send traffic to these sites. The long tail would get a lot shorter if Facebook Comments were widely adopted as is.

We've seen some anecdotal evidence that referring traffic from Facebook has increased after implementing Facebook Comments. That makes sense, particularly in the short-term.

The question is whether this is additive or a zero-sum game. In the long-run, would implementing Facebook Comments provide more traffic despite the potential loss in search engine traffic via fewer long-tail visits?

For publishers, the answer might be yes. For retailers, the answer might be no. That has a lot to do with the difference between informational and transactional search.

Even posing the question shows how disruptive Facebook Comments could be if it is widely adopted. It could be the true start of a major shift in website traffic channel mix.