Spam Proof? Why Google’s +1 will be difficult to abuse

Following the (partial) release of Google’s Plus One button, there has been a lot of chat amongst the SEO community about what impact it may have on rankings. The debate that has interested me is the one around whether it is spamable or not. More of that below.

Google Plus One Button

What is Plus One (aka “+1″, “pluses”)

It’s Google’s answer to the Facebook Like button. Currently they can only be found in search results (and currently only on Google.com).  In due course they will almost certainly make plus one buttons for websites too.  Until they do this, +1’s are really no different to the various voting buttons that have been on Google for ages and have never been utilised much but there seems to be more intent this time.

Self Catering SERPs with Plus One

Will they impact search engine rankings?

The wording from Google is the typical “maybe, probably at some point in the future” response.  “Likes” and “Pluses” are clearly potential quality signals.  All other things being equal, would you rank a web page which has been “plused” more than another web page? You probably would. I certainly would as it is an indicator that people are finding the page useful or interesting.

Surely +1s are spammable? Right?

India inevitably gets the abuse. We can all imagine armies of people in low wage economies being made to sit at computer screens and “plus” porn, pill and poker sites, such is the value of high listings in Google. Of course it will be the unseen robots that will account for most of the abuse.

It will be very easy to artificially get Pluses but Google wasn’t born yesterday.  They have long had to detect activity along these lines, not least on Google Adwords/Adsense where clicking of adverts in an effort to get cheques out of Google or abuse competitors has long been an issue that they have to remain on top off (“click fraud”).  They have also long had to deal with artificially created links, pages and copy so this challenge is no bigger than any other they have pretty much managed to control.

Speculation: Identifying abuse will come down to a combination of pattern recognition and assigning various trust factors to individual “plusers”.  Google will be able to identify the difference between a mass of pluses originating from a series of Google accounts that do nothing other than “plusing” commercial sites and a surge of activity from real users who use Google search in a normal way (variety of search phrases, location, normal spread of results clicked on, reasonable proportion of results viewed “plused”), probably use other Google services, have genuine friends, exhibit deep interests in a subject (search history) and I’m sure any numberof other signals that haven’t immediately sprung to mind.

Of course, every potential quality signal is spammable and indeed will be spammed.  Google learned the lesson about not calling things spam-proof in their very early days and won’t make that mistake again. The cleverest will always be able to find ways of abusing any quality signal in the search for ranking success. Inevitably such tactics will be temporary loopholes that Google will close off progressively so won’t be something we will spend too much time worrying about.

Will Plus Ones take off?

I’m really not so convinced but then again I still think Google Wave is amazing, so what do I know.  For me the biggest problem is the name. The word “Like” is very intuitive. “+1″ on the other hand begs the question “what the hell happens if I press it?”. Needing to be logged in is also a problem as Google continues to struggle to persuade people to do so (when compared to Facebook).

Unlike other’s I do feel that Google will “get social” in due course (they will simply keep trying until they do). At that point plus ones might become significant.

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3 thoughts on “Spam Proof? Why Google’s +1 will be difficult to abuse”

  1. Attacat Joel says:

    The thing I find funniest is that the name ‘+1′ isn’t actually searchable u2013 ‘+’ is a search modifier so you’re actually searching for the exact term ‘1’. I retweeted the person who first noticed this but can’t remember who it was off the top of my head. nnPretty ironic that you can’t easily search for the next big thing from a search engine…

  2. Nigel says:

    So how do you think it will work? Will Google penalize a website for abusing the +1 button by having people from multiple IP addresses (or a service using proxies) press on a page’s +1 button and artificially inflate the stats? If this is the case then anyone could go to a competitors site and do the same to them.

    Perhaps Google will just discount +1’s it considers as artificial when it comes to SEO. But visitors wouldn’t know they are artificial.

  3. Attacat Tim says:

    Hi Nigel. I think it will be just a case of discounting as you suggest.

    If you speak to black hat SEOs then they will certainly tell you that there are ways of damaging your competitors but Google will be aware of this and will seek to make it as difficult as they can (knowing that making it “impossible” is erm…impossible)

    As with all signals I assume there is a filter that would be tripped if too many signals were being abused. No single signal would trip a filter, especially one that the webmaster has no control over.

    On Google + specifically, if it takes off they will have a lot of data that will be able to give them a high confidence of a plus one click being genuine or not even at the individual click level so at an aggregated click level this would be more difficult to game.

    Re visitors not knowing they are artificial – I can’t think how to combat that one other than to remove accounts of abusing plusers. However the scale of the problem is probably less than you think as most of these artificial pluses won’t be seen by that many people as by definition the manipulation is to try to make the site look busier than they are.

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