Doesn't Google know how to rank social media?

Wed 13 January 2010 17:22, Bas van den Beld

Doesn't Google know how to rank social media?

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...

  • Comments (6)
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Comments (6)


  • I agree with you. I think it should not be important how many I follow but whom. As well as what I tweet and retweet. For me the content counts as well as in SEO and the hashtags (which should fit to the tweet!). If somebody tweets "good morning" and writes it with the hashtag #socialmedia only to rank better in the real time search for Social Media, it makes no sense. But I also think, that the number of my followers is an interesting indicator, because that shows the interest of others to my tweets. So Google just starts with the real time Search, they definitely have to optimize their way to value the whole thing. But humans should be compared with links.

    How would you do it?

    Looking forward to your answer :-) Best from Munich!

    Wo 13 jan 2010, 18:56

  • Sorry, I meant humans should NOT be compared with links ( forgot to write "not")

    Wo 13 jan 2010, 18:58

  • Don't let Google fool you, Bas ;) To answer your question: yes, I think you're wrong :)

    First I think this piece/interview is well suited for misunderstanding how Google ranks real-time search results. Just one example of followers as an indicator for reputation is over-emphasized here. I think Amit Singhal means when he says: "It is "definitely, definitely" more than a popularity contest"

    Of all companies Google probably knows best how people are gaming the internet, especially search engine algorithms. Of course they know that followers are easy to obtain/tweak/spam. So they would be stupid to let the amount of followers be the most important factor in ranking content from Twitter.

    You're suggesting mentions and retweets as an example of measuring authority. And that's exactly what Google IS measuring by doing link analysis (call it PageRank for that matter)! Every mention or retweet is a link to a Twitter user. And every tweet is a single web page. So link analysis does make a lot of sense.

    And with closing the Twitter deal, beyond spidering Twitter content, they buy themselves a lot of valuable information. Google now knows on average how much tweets are retweeted or how much you are mentioned compared to for example the amount of followers. This could even be narrowed down to language, topic, keyword, hashtag, etc.

    If your tweets are retweeted or mentioned below the rate which "it should be", that's a pretty good hint you are less authoritative. Google can even check it with click behavior by integrating Tweets in their search results.

    And think about all the data Google has got. Based on for example blogs, news and searches they already now if a topic is trending/hot or not. They even show it to the world in tools like Google Hot Trends or Google Insights for Search.

    Ps. I do not agree on your statement "And humans are not links.". In the end web sites do not link to web sites, people link to other people.

    Wo 13 jan 2010, 22:13

  • Hi Eduard and Kathrin, thank you for your responses!

    Let me start with Eduard's response, because then I will probably answer Kathrin's question within that answer :).

    Eduard, I'm not letting Google fool me by far. Maybe I wasn't clear and you missed the point I'm trying to make here. That concerns two things:

    1. the message Google is sending out
    2. the fact that Google is using the Pagerank-method on followers.

    First the message Google is sending out. I agree with you that Google is ranking on more than just followers. And that this interview may over-emphasize the followers part. But, just like with Pagerank, its Google making this mistake by not being clear. What we are working with is Singhal's words here. Thats where we go from.

    And the message they are sending out is not the 'its not a popularity contest', its the message that they are using Pagerank on followers and that authority matters. Because that what he is clearly saying, no doubt about that. Followers matter. And in my opinion, followers should only matter when they are within your social circle. Outside of your social circle it shouldn't.

    Google has a responsibility on what they are saying. They are usually very careful with that. In this case the message is wrong. Maybe its the interviewer, maybe its Google, but people will think number of followers is important.

    Yes, they look at more than just followers, but they emphasize the followers part. They should say it the other way around: "we look at content and then we look a little bit at followers." Now Google at the least hints followers are more important than content.

    Second, the Pagerank method on followers: Google had the chance to come up with something revolutionary. They didn't. They used Pagerank again.

    Yes, again, its not the only thing they look at and you are very very right when you point out all the data Google looks at. But still they are making followers important by using the Pagerank method.

    You say you don't agree with my statement that humans are not links because people link to each other. I disagree on that off course :). They reason why is the INTENT behind a link or the INTENT behind following people.

    Very boldly stated: If you feel some content is good you make a link to it. On Twitter it is not said that if you think someone is good or excellent you automatically follow them.

    With Twitter it used to be so that if you thought someone was important you started following them. But that is changing. As I pointed out, by using applications like Tweetdeck and also with lists, you don't just follow specific people anymore, you follow topics. I follow people because I can DM them, or to put them in specific lists or columns, or simply because they are friends. I'm not following Scoble for example, but I do see his tweets, or at least the ones I'm interested in :). You will see a shift towards this even more in the future I suspect.

    Pagerank is based on recommendation because you've done something right, quality wise. I follow a lot of people based on friendship, not quality. But because I get a high authority their tweets might show up, even though the quality might not be high.

    On the other hand, if I'm not following someone it doesn't make him less interesting.

    Finally, I'm not seeing the results I would expect to see. A search for my name brings back a realtime tweet I sent to Ciaran yesterday morning (! realtime!!), a completely irrelevant link, because I have been tweeting about the topic we are discussing here far more. But the tweet is there because Ciaran has authority.

    So how would I go into it (Kathrin :) )? Well, I'm not an engineer so I would probably get it all wrong myself ;), but I would for one thing focus a lot less on tweets and a lot more on what people are tweeting about and the links they are tweeting to. And for me 'social search' was something which would fit in perfectly here. If you want authority, make it a personal authority.

    Do 14 jan 2010, 10:32

  • I think the following post is very useful for determing the importance of followers:

    Nobody has a million twitter followers:

    Do 14 jan 2010, 14:26

  • I think the following post is very useful for determing the importance of followers:

    Nobody has a million twitter followers:

    Do 14 jan 2010, 14:26


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