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Earlier this week one of my favorite link building blogs, SEER Interactive, has published a post on why Google +1 votes are not a good ranking signal. The post by Wil Reynolds recapitulates 10 years of history of ranking factors in search to make its point.

It all sounds very convincing unless that it is not true. The old school SEO thinking does not apply here in the case of Google +1 which rather has to do with social media than search. I’m far from a Google fanboy but the

+1 votes, especially now that Google has a social network built around them, have real potential to be the most significant ranking signal from now on.

You can’t compare the simplistic Snap.com model of “the more clicks the better positions in search results” to the complex Google +1 architecture.

The only thing both have probably in common is the click, everything else differs. First off, Snap.com apparently used clicks as one of the if not the most important factor. I don’t really know, I haven’t tried it back then. Anyways Google uses hundreds of ranking signals, at least 200 as officially announced a few years ago.

You didn’t have to log in back then, you just had to “spoof a browser”. For Google+ and +1 you have to use your real name and you have to log in to vote +1.

Wil Reynolds goes on to explain that you can pay fake or legit users to click +1 votes as well. That’s true. On the other hand the sheer amount of tasks to look legit he suggests is more than the amount of time and effort to create legit content and get real +1 votes as far as I can see:

  • “Check in” using Google’s check in services once a week? Yes
  • Add a new feed to their reader once a week? Yes
  • Go into Google reader and read a few posts? Yes
  • Buy something for 5 dollars from a web site once a month? Yes, and use Google checkout to do it (credit cards might be a qualifier).
  • Upload a video to YouTube and get some views on it? Yes
  • Go to YouTube and watch 1 video every 3 days, leave a comment once every 10 videos you watch? Yes.

This is quite a lot of  fuss to simulate a legit account.

Why do people cheat? They do because it’s less tedious, cheaper and faster than the real thing.

It has be all of it as the risk of getting caught is an obvious drawback when cheating. So why should I employ a dozen outsourced Indian puppets when I can pay the same people half the money to write great content and promote it instead?

Let’s assume that some people just cheat out of habit, yes there are some in the SEO game as far as I can see. Also let’s assume that even legit users will get bribed to click +1 votes. People buy links so they will but +1 votes as well. Assuming the above we have to ask ourselves whether Google will be able to count just the legit votes and spot the paid ones, or at least better than Google can spot paid links. As of now Google is still not very good at finding those. I agree with Wil Reynolds here.

Let’s take a look on how Google manages Google Profiles, Google+ and Google +1 votes to understand why +1 votes are probably the best ranking signal Google can get now that the hyperlink is not reliable anymore.

  1. You have to be a real person using a real name.
  2. Your friends and fans categorize you in their Google+ circles so that Google knows who you are, what the relationship is and on what topics you are an expert on.
  3. You click +1 on third party websites and your own search results without really sharing it so that unlike on Digg or Twitter stuff doesn’t get pushed just because a friend recommends them. You push them up just for yourself.
  4. Google+ /+1 does not allow automated voting or cross posting from other sites.
  5. Google Profiles get connected to multiple other social media profiles and sites to verify your identity.

Can you spoof your family ties and lots of friends who engage with you? You could pay Asian outsourcing firms to do that but again this would be quite a lot of work. I also know that there are bots that do it on StumbleUpon and Digg. I have seen lots of fake profiles there. Even the US government is investing in sock-puppet software for a cyberwar to manipulate social media.

I’m quite optimistic though than Google is smarter than StumbleUpon and the Pentagon here. It can most probably separate the wheat from the chaff. This is why they are frantically deleting fake user accounts, they want keep Google+ uberclean to make sure the ranking signals do not get diluted. Why am I so sure that Google will get it? It’s personalization.

Personalization of search results based on data from numerous Google services will unmask fake users.

Google shows me results from sites I clicked the +1 button on top. It shows me results from Google Reader subscription in the top 10, I see sites on top that I have bookmarked years ago or shared on Twitter, Friendfeed or Quora. I also see stuff shared by others.

Can you spoof that? You can: You have to use Google search then and click these personalized results like a normal person would. Also your friends and family have to click these results and read them without bouncing. I know you could force Chinese political prisoners to do so like they already toil on virtual farms in games to make money for the corrupt regime. Some sadistic prison guards may come up with a similar scheme for SEO. Everyone else would spend tons of money to fake just a few dozens of real users or to pay real users to vote on +1.

Cheap plus votes can already to be bought by the hundred but how obviously fake are these votes?

What do you think? They are as fake as the 5000 links for 19$ packages you get offered on the Web. It’s not difficult to determine these links to be fake.

Paid links work beacuse they are difficult to find without actually looking at the sites and even then it’s difficult to prove that they got paid for. Fake Google Profiles and paid +1 votes on the other hand can be seen from afar. I’m pretty sure that you can track them algorithmically without having to resort to desperate measures like “report paid links” forms. You just have to find patterns in which the average real users use Google search and other services. Those who do not fit this pattern get either banned or their votes downgraded.

There are still some issues with Google +1 votes, no doubt.

Just an example: I was the second person to +1 the NASA homepage a week or two ago. Also I won’t +1 pages on medical, financial and political topics in many cases as I don’t want everybody who can see my Google Profile to know about my health and financial issues or political views. Last but not least sites that actively encourage +1 votes have many more of them than site that don’t. So not all websites and +1 votes are created equal.

Google has to count some votes more than others and I bet it already does.

A vote of Danny Sullivan counts a lot more than other votes. The more “real” you are and the more authority you have the better. You can’t fake trust. +1 votes are a trust based system. For links you can only count authority, on Google Profiles you can verify it. That’s why +1 votes are the most accurate ranking signal Google can get. It’s even better than other anonymous engagement metrics like bounce rates from search results etc.

* Partial screen shot from a site that sells Google +1 votes.

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