Why You Can’t Game Google and Bing with +1s and Likes

    September 2, 2011
    Chris Crum

Social is more important to search rankings than ever. There’s no doubt about that.

Should +1s and Facebook “likes” be used as significant ranking signals by search engines? Share your thoughts here.

In a recent article, we asked if Google’s +1 button is the new PageRank. As Google uses the data from the button as a ranking signal, +1’s will no doubt be coveted more and more by any site owner looking for increased search visibility and traffic.

As discussed in that article, just as you’ve seen plenty trying to boost their PageRank through black hat tactics, it seems highly likely that these same people will try to exploit the +1 button. Google’s main weapon agains this appears to be tying the +1s to your actual identity, by using a strict profile naming policy.

Google wants to know who is doing this +1ing, which should help cut down on abuse.

Bing’s Duane Forrester wrote a blog post this week talking about a similar topic in the realm of abusing the social signals that search engines use to try and determine what results to show users. Forrester’s focus was on the concept of the “like” farm – basically the social equivalent of the link farm.

Amazingly, though, people think this approach works,” says Forrester. “The rationale being that social signals matter to search, they can ramp up the volume of the ‘like’ signal in Facebook, causing a related boost in rankings.  The logic may seem fine, but when you recall that we can see sudden explosions of links as spammy, it’s easy to understand how we can see sudden explosions of likes as spammy as well.  To be fair, there’s more to it than that.”

“Anyone could suddenly ‘go viral’ and accumulate a lot of likes very quickly, so we look beyond just like/time to find patterns,” he explains. “And if there is one thing a search engine is good at, it’s seeing patterns online.  Like farms tend to be built around a core network of accounts.  You pay someone to like your site, content or whatever, and they go out across their network and like you.  It’s artificial and we know it.  Organic likes rarely follow obvious patterns.  In fact, if there’s a pattern to organic liking, it’s one built around chaos.  Like farms, however, no matter their size, end up looking obvious by comparison.  In the image below, you can see what an accumulation of likes look like to us when graphed.”

He shares the following graph depicting like activity with the red dots representing a like’s origin and the blue dots representing friends liking the same item. He says the differences between like farm activity and organic activity are “very obvious”.

Like Farm Activity

“In most cases, if we spot like farm activity, we simply ignore the signal,” says Forrester.  “Again, you may have paid for a service which is bringing you no value in boosting your search results. This also points out why it is so important that you manage your social media program.  At the very least, if you are outsourcing the management of your social program, you need to keep an eye on things.  Short cuts can add up eroding any value you were trying to achieve.”

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it is impossible to game the search engines using social media. Black hatters will always look for (and probably find) new ways to exploit the system for their gain, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

Interestingly, a report out from BrightEdge finds that about half of the largest 10,000 sites on the web don’t even display any kind of social sharing link or buttons at all. This is very surprising. As one WebProNews reader commented, “I find that unbelievable! The search engines have flat out admitted that social signals are a ranking factors. Why would a site owner not want to include social share buttons? Let your readers do some of the heavy lifting and get your content promoted in their social networks!”

I would strongly advise making the buttons accessible. Just have the content to give users a reason to click them. Then maybe you won’t have to worry about trying to game the system.

Do you think Google and Bing can keep social button abuse at bay? Tell us what you think.