It's time for Google, as it works feverishly to improve the capabilities of Google+, to add one particular feature to its social-network tool: permanent Web addresses for each comment.
I'd like this ability, and I think it would help expand the Google+ utility to its users. But it's for Google's own sake that I think comment permalinks are important.
Google+ offers what has become a pretty standard interface for social networking: members can post updates, then hold discussions in the comments below. But if you want to direct attention to a particular comment--forget it. Your best bet is to copy and paste the text to a new location, in particular when discussion threads get long, but that disassociates the comment from the commenter.
It's a drag for people like me, who can only share a link to the top-level update and not to a comment, as I did yesterday when trying to spotlight a comment by SPDY co-creator Mike Belshe.
Here's why I see it hurting Google even more, though.
In short, comments are exactly the sort of richly personal data that Google is trying to inject into its search system, and permalinks bring that information to light. They're a handle for the GoogleBot to grasp and therefore can be incorporated into the personalized overhaul of Google's services.
Facebook and Twitter, to Google's chagrin, don't let the search engine index their updates and tweets. A huge quantity of very personal words are arriving on those sites, but it's effectively unknown to Google unless somebody links to a particular comment on an indexed Web site.
I experimented recently with Facebook, publicly posting a link to a video. It was only within a couple hours of posting a public blog about it, including a link to the Facebook update, that the Facebook post was discoverable in Google's search results.
These sorts of personal links are potentially very important as Google rewires search.
In Google's earlier days, the company used its PageRank algorithm to figure out what was important on the Web: if lots of Web pages linked to a particular site, that site was probably important and therefore deserved to appear high in search results. Further, PageRank also elevated a site's placement in search results if the Web pages that linked to it were deemed important on their own.
PageRank has been supplemented by many other influences over the years, but today's priority is building social signals into search results.
On Facebook, posting a status update with a link, or liking something, provides data that in a way parallels PageRank: it's a human choice that, when analyzed in aggregate, can be used to figure out the collective judgment of a lot of humans. The same applies for tweeting, retweeting, and marking a tweet as a favorite.
But with Facebook and Twitter walled off into their own domains, Google won't benefit from their rich networks of links and actions unless it decides to spend enough money for the data. So it's not hard to see why Google+ is important for the company -- and why. And, for that matter, why Google says Google+ isn't just a social network, but actually a collection of social activity across all Google properties.
Latching on to comments
No doubt Google's servers have the smarts to decode a Google+ Web page, figuring out social ties among the original post's author and the commenters. Offering permalinks to comments, though, would give Google a rich new source of data to spotlight directly in search results.
Other search engines, too, could latch onto comments, so perhaps searches on Baidu, Yandex, Yahoo, and Bing would lead people to Google+. Overall, comment permalinks would lead to a big new corpus of indexable data. I don't know about you, but there have been plenty of times I found comments more interesting, insightful, or entertaining than the post to which they were attached.
When I asked Google about this idea, they declined to comment on future plans. But there are signs Google is moving in this direction.
Self-described Google enthusiast Arvid Bux brought it to my attention yesterday that Google is showing Google+ comments in search results, though for now, at least, only nested below the original post.
I confirmed it happening, too, in a socially related search result included through Google's "Search Plus Your World" program.
More evidence arrived shortly afterward. The Next Web spotted a blog post by Tech World editor saud Alhawawi. He quoted attendees of a Saudi Arabian Google conference, including Google employees, as saying a new comments system is under way. It could be used as a comment system for third-party sites and that Google's search engine will index the comments, a translation of the site indicates. (Alhawawi also said the Google Drive cloud-based file-sharing service will launch soon.)
So perhaps I just need to be patient (as I need to with my desire to publish a Google+ post for everybody except particular circles).
Google, clearly struck by the urgency of catching the social revolution on the Internet, can't be patient.
Updated 3:30 a.m. PT May 1to correct an attribution of a story that appeared on The Next Web.