PersonRank: making stuff discoverable since 201116 Dec 2011
Search is important. Once Google fixed search so it was usable at the end of the 90s, it dominated how we discover things on the Web, leaving directories, curated links and personal recommendations as quaint memories. Not only that, it's getting more important. 92% of Internet users use search, and today in 2011 there are 3 billion searches a day on Google, up 20% on 2010's number.
This means making your website easily searchable by Google becomes of the upmost importance. The higher up the search engine results you are for relevant terms the more people will discover you.
The main reason search is so popular now is simple: it works. Search was slow and inaccurate before Google 'fixed' it in the late 90s. I remember exactly what I was doing when I tried Google for the first time. I even remember my first query: I simply searched for 'BT' (as in: British Telecom). I was blown away simply by the fact that the very first result was BT's home page. I remember thinking to myself that other search engines would probably return some BT middle-manager's pet project home page.
Google got two things right with search. First, their big insight into search algorithms was to take the concept of citation prevelant in academic circles and apply it to web pages. Essentially, the more a web page is cited (linked to), the more important it must be. Second, Google realised speed was a feature. Results were returned super-fast, and as a result people used it more. This double whammy of accuracy and speed where the growth of search and of Google began.
Crucially, the nature of social networking is such that success has a compounding effect: winners win more. After all, there's not much point joining a social network site with no other members. so on average those with the most members continue to attract more. Google realised this and reacted by releasing their own social networking sites. Their first, Buzz, was a failure. The latest, Google+, started well but it remains to be seen whether the momentum can be maintained. But why do they want to be involved in social networking anyway?
I think the key lies in discovery. Google wants to make things discoverable. What's their mission statement?
Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Google's search algorithms went a long way to make the world's information accessible. But searching for something is not the only way to find it. If you want to unblock a drain, ice a cake or learn how to crochet you could look it up online, but you could equally ask your dad, mum or grandma, respectively (or not?).
That's the secret. Google wants to retain control over how information is made accessible, or discovered, and they realise that referrals from friends and acquaintances are a big part of that. By formalising and storing your social network, the likes of Facebook are in a much better place to record and use that information. Facebook can store all of the articles, products and services you've 'liked' to present to your friends as recommendations when you need some advice.
The Google +1 button is Google's answer to this. If you search for something a friend has recommended you'll see those recommendations appear higher on the search results than you otherwise would do. This means more recommendations mean better search engine performance.
It goes further than simply bumping up your friend's recommendations in SERPS, though. Taking the analogy to academic citations further, my thought experiment, PersonRank, will define your reputation in terms of the things you recommend, 'Like', follow and share. By monitoring the products, brands, projects and people you associate with online PersonRank can also define your reputation in terms of reliability. The reliability of any given recommendation you make, presented to other individuals, can be measured by its click through rate by those individuals and, if the targeted page shares its analytics with Google, its conversion rate. If your recommendations are generally unreliable, that may mean your PersonRank is low, which means your recommendations in turn have less of an effect.
It's clear that measurements of social proof will become more and more important in search engine rankings. Formally recorded recommendations, for instance clicks on 'Like' buttons and the brands that are 'followed' on Facebook and Twitter are becoming currency; a balance of social proof that will make your brands and projects more discoverable.
If you want to make something that is discoverable, this means as well as building links to your websites to satisfy traditional SEO algorithms, you must also build recommendations, testimonials, and reviews.
Just like with traditional SEO, it'll also lead to the emergence of a grey market of vendors offering to game the system. You'll be able to pay to be 'liked' or 'followed'. It would be wise to avoid these practices. If PersonRank turns out like PageRank then the system will become self re-inforcing. Paying unreliable individuals to recommend your brands will mean your brands themselves become tarnished.
It would be much better to stay open and trustworthy. Don't solicit paid recommendations, await them from satisfied customers. But certainly aim to build recommendations. Like links, recommendations will become the next currency of the Web.
You should only think of recommending things that truly deserve it, but you should also not fear to recommend. By recommending products that others also recommend you will be recognised as a person of good taste and your reputation will improve as a result.
Take control of your online self. Build your reputation. It doesn't take much effort, just judicious use of social networks and a small Web presence of your own. If you don't, others will, and just like with SEO, their PersonRank will start higher than yours and get higher.
Thanks to TheGiantVermin, luc legay and EvelynGiggles for the images above.