Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Google needs Buzz to be relevant

Google makes its income by selling relevant adverts, originally just on its search pages and that's probably still the major income, but increasingly on its other services so it needs real people to visit it to show them the adverts. recently published an article "Facebook Now Responsible For Majority Of Web Portal Traffic" where they point out that
15% of Web traffic to Yahoo, MSN and AOL in Dec 2009 originated from Facebook and MySpace. That 15% was split 13% for Facebook and 2% for MySpace. Surprisingly, Google only provided 7% of traffic, and were even beat out by eBay with 7.61%.
And go on to discuss that with search engines becoming less relevant they need to take on social networking to survive.

Where can we go on this? Firstly, 15% isn't a majority, and portals are ways of finding things (news, links, etc) and not the things themselves, so a good search engine should bypass them and go direct to the full news article, or web page, but I can see why this is bad for Google, as it means people aren't searching on Google for what they want and finding adverts.

There's a certain irony in this. Before Google, to find a site on a topic we relied on reputable directories and links from authority sites. Early search engines were pretty useless as they just counted how well stuffed with keywords the page's meta data and contents were and low quality advertising sites learned to play the system and the search engines were pretty useless. I can remember having to go to page 10 or 20 of results to find what I was after.

Google's pagerank algorithm cut through this, as by counting links from authority sites to rank the importance of pages and if you couldn't find what you were looking for by page 2 of Google you probably weren't going to find it so you revised your search. It worked because at the heart of it, all Google was doing was automating the job previously performed by authority sites and reputable directories.

The owners of low quality sites, of course, learned to game Google and an arms race has been going on ever since. In a way Google has lost as, if you try and search for something on Google you are now usually presented with a large number of relatively low quality advertising or retailer sites. Services like Blogspot and places like Facebook return the web to the ordinary person and individuals find their pool of personally trusted authority sites. Google can use the data created by links from and to blogs, Facebook pages, etc to assign page ranking and, as they show actual visitor traffic by real people, Google Toolbar, Google Adsense and Google Analytics must be godsends to them.

Blogspot (and other blogging services), Facebook, Twitter etc are now all heavily spammed, but real people choose who they follow and when, so depending on how much data it can get from them Google can analyse which social media pages give a degree of "real" authority. Like Google reader and their other services Buzz is entirely on their services, Google knows what's in my Google Reader and they know what's on my Google Buzz page, they must be pretty sure by now that I'm a real person and they have a fair idea of my sphere of interest, so they can rate the links I make and use that as one tiny data point in the calculation of the importance of web sites. Aggregate that over millions of users and Google gains valuable insight into the importance of sites as seen by social media users.

Done well, Buzz will help Google in its arms race to keep search relevant and so keep traffic coming. The owners of commercial websites will, of course, try to work out how to game the new system and I assume that SEO (Search Engine Optimization [sic]) practitioners are industriously trying to work out exactly how to do that right now.

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