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Google happens to be really good at a lot of things:

  • Making money off of search by sprinkling ads around the search results;
  • Returning search results that are more relevant than those offered by competitors; Making a cool Web analytics tool (so you know how many more of those ads you should sprinkle around search results);
  • Making lots of fun and collaborative document stuff;
  • Oh, and creating an email system that works better than the one your information technology crew used to cobble together.

Yes, Google is really, really good at some things: Namely, things that involve a lot of engineering.

There are some things Google isn’t that good at. Most of them involve social things. Ever hear of Orkut, Google’s social networking service? How about Dodgeball? (OK, that’s a trick question. Google gave up on Dodgeball and then its founders went on to make something called Foursquare.) How about Google Wave?

Yeah, when it comes to social technology, Google’s track record isn’t so hot. And with advertising budgets focusing more and more on social initiatives, that is a weak spot for "the Goog." So much so that company bonuses this year are tied to Google’s social initiatives.

Which brings us to Google’s social initiative: "+1."

A human signal for Google’s algorithm

Google’s objective of providing a higher-quality search experience is nothing new. It’s how Google won the space away from AltaVista and other competitors back in the day and it’s how Google has maintained its lock on search.

But search — when driven entirely by math, on-page analysis and link analysis — is starting to wear a little thin. The real-time Web of Twitter and Facebook status updates, and all sorts of other bits of information and news are finally catching up to user expectations.

Since Google’s software — despite how well-written as it is and running on such powerful hardware — can’t always know everything that is created online, it’s hard to imagine it also identifying what people find relevant, in real time.

Google’s +1 is an attempt to do that. If people are hitting the +1 button, then Google is getting a signal that something is meaningful to someone. From there, it becomes an issue of identifying and filtering "spammy" behavior (an engineering task with which Google has experience).

To date, the +1 button has been relegated to the search engine results page. I always thought that was pretty useless, because if you discovered a new page that you found useful, you’re not very likely to go back to Google and hit the +1 button on the search engine results page.

It would’ve made more sense to have a "-1" button: You perform a search, you go to a result, you realize it’s junk, then you hit the back button and press "-1" for the junky result, and continue on to the next result.

That would’ve been a powerful feature, but probably a little too negative for Google.

Putting +1 in the right context

Last week Google solved that problem by allowing the +1 button to spread out to your Web pages. On your own Web page instead of the search engine results, +1 starts to make a little more sense.

The little chicklet button fits there alongside all the other "Like me! Please, please, please!" flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of a page: Facebook Like, StumbleUpon, Buzz, Digg, Reddit, share on Twitter, share on LinkedIn, and so on.

The question is whether it will get used, I suppose. This new Google service will probably be compared most often to Facebook’s "like" button. Users punch the like button as a way to spread content to their friends on Facebook. They know that their action will cause some sort of mild impact on their content stream.

I don’t yet see a big motivation for anyone to use the +1 button. If you were to use the +1 button, what happens? Does Google change the search results it gives you?

Theoretically, it will show your input to people that Google knows you’re connected to (like it does with Twitter shares), but will it, really? Who knows? Why click it? (I mean, other than the obvious attempt to game the search engine giant’s results, and I don’t think anyone needs any more of that.)

Low-commitment user actions

This sort of plays into the whole big aspect of low-commitment user tasks: "liking" a business page in Facebook, for example.

Every day I hear a marketing person talk about how many Facebook "likes" or Twitter "followers" they have — as if any of those people liking or following are still paying attention to the company page/stream 24 hours later.

The +1 button is kind of like that: a low-commitment task (press a button to sort of share to people via more relevant search results). No one knows why you gave something a +1 and you don’t have to log in. It’s sort of the online equivalent of throwaway small talk.

I think most companies are hoping for a little more from their efforts than a noncommittal "like" or "+1" or "follow." At least, I hope so.

And don’t forget to +1 me when you next see me.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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