Doesn’t Google know how to rank social media?
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 36 seconds
Pagerank is not dead at all, its alive and kicking and its looking at Twitter. In an interview with Technology Review Googler Amit Singhal tried to explain the way Google looks at how to rank real time search results. The interview showed that Google is still looking at rankings like they did with Pagerank. This is Pagerank all over, only focussed on tweets, not links.
Amit Singhal was one of the lead developers of Googles real time search, so he knows what he is talking about. And without a doubt he is very smart guy, probably a lot smarter in what he does than I am. Still, I expected more from him, and more from Google for that matter. Google failed to come up with a new ranking method and therefore took Pagerank of the shelf. But with that they seem to hint at the fact they have no idea how to rank social media.
In the interview Singhal explained some elements of the ranking. Lets look at some of the things he says:
“In the case of tweets, the key is to identify “reputed followers,”. You earn reputation, and then you give reputation. If lots of people follow you, and then you follow someone–then even though this [new person] does not have lots of followers,” his tweet is deemed valuable because his followers are themselves followed widely.”
Ok, so this makes sense: you might not have to many followers yourself, but if someone with ‘reputation’ follows you, they give you a little of their reputation, just like linkjuice. That sounds good. Reputation matters. But how do they measure that reputation? If you look at the last line: “his tweet is deemed valuable because his followers are themselves followed widely” then it seems to be as if the reputation is based on… number of followers?
But maybe he will make it clear when the interview continues:
“One user following another in social media is analogous to one page linking to another on the Web. Both are a form of recommendation,”
Again, Pagerank. Get as many “links”, aka followers, as possible and Google will reward you for it. One follower will be seen as more important then the other, but still the suggestion remains that a lot of followers will help you get higher rankings in real time search. If we are both followed by the same followers with a good reputation, the difference will be made by those without the reputation.
Luckily Google says they are also looking at the content of the tweets. In the interview Singhal talks about hashtags and how they can be seen as spam but also as a way of filtering out important messages. He is not very clear on the subject:
“While he wouldn’t get into details, he said Google modeled this hashtagging behavior in ways that tend to reduce the exposure of low-quality tweets. “We needed to model that [hashtagging] behavior. That is the technical challenge which we went after with our modeling approaches,”
He doesn’t make it quite clear, but it the general message he is sending out is that Google is mostly working on preventing getting spammers in real time, based on trends and followers.
The message which this interview gives out is: followers are important.
And that is where Google goes wrong. Followers should not be important at all. There are several things wrong with taking followers as a ranking method.
First of all: who cares if you are followed by Matt Cutts himself? Does that make you more important? Am I less important because he is not following me? I would say no. Google probably thinks so.
Singhal claims “It is “definitely, definitely” more than a popularity contest”. Google says its not a popularity contest, but it sure looks like one.
Second: Twitter is changing from a communication tool to a sending tool. Number of followers and following are getting so high it is impossible to keep track of everything your ‘friends’ are saying. That’s why applications like Tweetdeck and Seesmic are so successful: they let you look at Twitter a different way. You can filter tweets based on topic. And that means I’m seeing tweets passing by from people I don’t follow. I’m not following people, I’m following topics.
So why should you follow people? For one thing, because you want to be in touch with them. Following each other gives the option to DM each other, which can be very handy. Another reason could be that you are actually interested in these people, so you want to know what they are saying. When you start following them, they become important FOR YOU, not for the general crowd out there. Come on in social search!
So how would you measure authority? Not by followers, thats for sure. Google should be looking at retweets, mentions, clicks, etcetera. The ‘buzz’, that should matter as authority. And combine that with social search.
We are dealing with social media here. Which means there are humans involved, or at least there should be. And humans are not links.
By looking at Twitter in real time search like they do at links on the web, Google lets us know they do not know how they can rank social media. That is either a big miss by Google or a problem we will all be facing in the near future: getting clear what is important and what is not in social media. But maybe I’m all wrong about this? Let me know…