Google's '+1' experiment looks Delicious

A new experiment from Google brings Facebook's Like button to mind, but it takes even more of a cue from an ahead-of-its-time start-up service that faltered after a sale to Yahoo.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
If you thought this result for a Google search for 'hamster costumes' was particularly helpful, you could click that +1. Screenshot by Caroline McCarthy/CNET

Google today launched an experiment called "+1," a small button alongside links in search results that it says users can click "to give something your public stamp of approval, so friends, contacts, and others can find the best stuff when they search."

In other words, it's the company's answer to Facebook's ubiquitous Like button. It'll keep a log of your favorite discoveries on Google, and (almost more importantly) use that to customize what sorts of ads you see. It's also a way for the company to get a better gauge on the quality of content when it seems like search engine results are famously clogged with results from "content farms"--publishers that are better at figuring out how to rank high on Google and its ilk than at offering up relevant content.

Google has, for the past few months, been countering the rise of "content farms" by making some highly publicized changes to its search algorithm. The +1 experiment is less explicitly directed at this threat of cluttery search results, but Google still underscores that it hopes it will make search results more "relevant."

"The beauty of +1's is their relevance," a post on the official Google blog explained. "You get the right recommendations (because they come from people who matter to you), at the right time (when you are actually looking for information about that topic), and in the right format (your search results)."

Eventually, Google says, we'll see the +1 buttons on non-Google sites--perhaps alongside the Facebook "like" buttons on news stories. But for now, they're restricted to search result links for users who have specifically opted into the +1 program for the time being.

The opt-in page explains: "Your +1's are public. They can appear in Google search results, on ads, and sites across the Web. You'll always be able to see your own +1's in a new tab on your Google Profile, and if you want, you can share this tab with the world." A personal page of public recommended links sounds a lot like Delicious--a company now widely considered to have been ahead of its time when it was acquired by Yahoo and then basically shelved. When Yahoo hinted that it would be divesting itself of Delicious late last year, the few still-hardcore users of Delicious protested.

Google has been experimenting with "social news" for some time now, quietly launching and then even-more-quietly pulling tests that would let users rank search results and discover popular items. It also considered buying Digg, a then-hot service for ranking popular links (which took the Delicious model and gave it a spin that focused more on a home page of the most popular stories rather than personal bookmarks), to integrate it into Google News, but the talks fell through and Digg has since languished.

There's no Digg-like central repository for the most popular Google +1's, just as there isn't one (yet) for Facebook Likes, though a publisher can use Facebook's API to create displays of their most-liked stories. When you search for something on Google, you won't see a list of how many people have given each result a seal of approval, but you will see whether one of your Google contacts has given a +1 to a link. But Google's probably aggregating this stuff behind the scenes, so with enough recommendations behind it, a result that's garnered many +1's could ultimately get a boost in Google search, giving them a hidden badge of crowdsourced approval and potentially combating the encroachment of "content farm" links that are search-engine friendly but neither particularly helpful nor relevant.

The likes of Digg and Delicious never went mainstream. Google +1, however, might have a leg up because it doesn't require the use of any additional bookmarking or linking services--just being logged in to a Google account and searching on Google, which still has the majority of the search engine market.

The +1 button could have some interesting reverberations throughout the rest of Google's products: videos on YouTube, stories on Google News, or popular destinations on Google Maps and Earth. But for now, it remains simple--and that's surprising. Google's most recent moves in social media, a territory in which it's lagged behind Facebook and Twitter, have been blunders; Google Wave was complicated and confusing, and Google Buzz was a privacy nightmare (the company just entered into a settlement agreement with the Federal Trade Commission over it). Google +1, for now, seems to be the sort of thing that could actually help the dominant search engine get some social-media cred and innovate more.

But there are still critics, like former Googler and current Foursquare exec Alex Rainert, who didn't seem to think the concept made much sense. He tweeted: "Why would I '+1' a link to a page before I've seen whether I like it and why would I go back to the results if I've found the best result?"

Well--that's a thought, at least until Google starts expanding the +1 buttons beyond search results so that they're actually visible across the Web. In its current form, +1 is probably a much narrower version of what Google eventually plans to offer, so it may be far too early to make judgment calls.