17 August 2011 | Team Tamar

Is voting back in favour in the age of social?

Back in the days when I first started working in search marketing, everything in the world of search was focused on ever-improving and increasingly-complex algorithms. Search engine results for all the main players were determined solely on factors which the average user (supposedly) had no control over.

Presumably one of the main reasons for this was to avoid the system being “gamed” – the less control people like me had over rankings, the more “unbiased” they would apparently be.

As SEO methods became more and more advanced, so the search engines sought to make their criteria more and more unbeatable – factors that were clearly being manipulated became less prevalent, algorithms got tweaked and the game continued.

At the same time, the world of social media and the “social graph” was growing and expanding it’s influence. Don’t worry – I shalln’t be using this post as a forum for critiquing the search engines’ rate of adoption for social factors, that’s a far longer post for another day. However, it’s clear that the search engines all scrabbled to ensure that their rankings and results were keeping up with the trend for more and more social factors being incorporated.

For a while that simply meant “easy” things, like including Twitter results live in the rankings, or crawling more blog posts to give more “up to the minute” results. But as the world of search has evolved and grown, it’s becoming increasingly clear that things seem to be moving back to be similar in flavour to what they originally were right at the start of the internet – when search engines had no algorithms, and everything was done through voting, recommendations and “retro” things like DMOZ editors and “power users”.

Google+ is the obvious and most recent indicator for this – whilst it’s still unclear how a site’s +1s will affect rankings, the one thing that IS clear is that they surely will. Their inclusion as an entire section in Google Webmaster Tools is one clear indicator of this.

Facebook “Likes” are another obvious example – it’s clear from Facebook’s own discussions that pages and posts with large volumes of “Likes” stand a better chance of being both shared and found, and the volume of “Likes” a Facebook page receives is clearly a large factor in their own internal search algorithm.

Whilst playing around with “influence measurement” tool Klout this week, I realised they too had added their own voting metric – namely “+K”. It’s not explicitly clear what the +K’s do, but one would assume they have some sort of manual intervention in your score – which would once again indicate a move back to the days of voting and manual ratings.

With social media being so deeply connected with human interaction and opinions, it’s no surprise that people like Google and Klout are looking to extend the usefulness of their automatic algorithms by incorporating human opinion to the mix. But it DOES open them up to “gaming” and manipulation, so it remains to be seen whether these will become robust metrics which make a big difference to the measurement or search tools they’re associated with.

The funny thing about all of this – at least to me – and the reason I wanted to write about this in the first place is the PUBLIC perception of “voting”.

We work with a number of clients who run competitions and contests through their social channels. We’ve been running contests and the like for a couple of years, and I’m always amazed at the “trends” that come and go in competition methods.

A couple of years ago, voting contests were ALL the rage – so much so that random draws or “judged” contests were deemed to be very inferior and less fair. But now, with the emergence of “gaming” systems that allow you to buy votes, or collectively play the system, the preference is back to judging and more “fair” methods. (Incidentally, Loquax – a site for competition fans – have some interesting blogs on the subject, if you’re interested!)

I wonder whether the same trend will emerge in the wider world, as these systems once again get manipulated and gamed by savvy marketers? I guess only time will tell.

Team Tamar