Checks and Balances in Ranking Signals

Google continues to introduce new sources of social signals at a rapid rate. The newest signal is the +1 button, a signal that some are calling their answer to Facebook.

Well, maybe, but I think there is much more to it than that. This is also Google’s latest move to reshape their ranking algorithms.

If we go back to the dawn of the modern search engine era, Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s thesis became the basis of the first successful commercial search engine based on citation analysis. The form of the citation worked beautifully, it was links.

The system was brilliant, because people only linked to stuff that they really liked. After all, a link might take traffic away from my site, so why would I link to something unless I thought it was good for my visitors, and that it would then reflect well on me?

As we all know the great spam attack followed, and an ongoing battle between Google and the spammers has followed. Google gradually made some progress, with most of the major firms who sell links exiting that business.

However, in the process, the original value of those citations lost some of its luster. Links no longer have the same degree of value as a citation source that they used to. They still are a valuable data point, but what was needed was a system of checks and balances.

The search for these has been ongoing for quite some time. By now Google has assembled an impressive list of alternative signals:

This is not to mention that they can monitor user behavior on the search results themselves. For example, if someone clicks on a search result and spends only 3 seconds there before bouncing back and clicking on a different result, that isn’t good. To this impressive array of signals, we now add the +1 feature.

The fascinating thing about all this is that it provides a marvelous system of checks and balances.

Spammers can continue to try and game the link side of the equation. They can find out how to buy links that Google can’t identify. They can build sites that use shady link building practices, and operate under Google’s radar.

But, it will be to no avail if your social signals don’t compare well with that of your competition.

Or, the spammer can choose to game one or more sets of social signals by one means or another. They can hire a bunch of people on Mechanical Turk to go spend an hour on their site and view 25 pages, make sure that they have the Google Toolbar installed, and make sure that they have Google Analytics on the site, right?

But what if the link data isn’t there to support that?

Gaming all the signals that we can identify may not even be enough, even if a spammer could afford it. After all, what are the signals that we can’t put our fingers on that Google has access to?

The cost of cheating just keeps going up and up, and figuring out how to do it gets harder and harder. The industry has speculated for years what Google would do to supplant or supplement links as a ranking signal. Now a clear picture is emerging.

A wide ranging network of social behavior signals will be a big player in the equation. These signals won’t supplant links entirely. Links will remain a huge factor, but there will also be a clear system of checks and balances.

The Google Panda update was the first major step towards putting these signals into action, and Google clearly likes the outcome of that effort. Panda is the first step in reshaping the way ranking algorithms work at Google. And, it is certainly only a first step.

Links won’t become a non-factor or a small factor. They are here to stay. Citation analysis, in a sense, is alive and well, it just comes in many different forms now.

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