Hints of How Google May Rank Social Networks?

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A trio of recently published patent applications from Google, originally filed in 2007, provide a hint at a possible social network from Google, but possibly more importantly give us some insights into how Google might rank objects in social networks such as:

  • Communities,
  • Forums,
  • Members,
  • Postings,
  • Photographs,
  • Blogs,
  • Albums,
  • Media files,
  • Articles, and;
  • Documents.

Ranking Social Network Objects, invented by Qingshan Luo, Hang Cui, Bo Zhang, and Dong Zhang, and published January 27, 2011, focuses primarily upon how these different objects might be ranked when found in a social network based upon the type of object involved.

When a search engine ranks a web page, a blog post, or a news article, it can look at things like how often certain keywords appear within those documents. In addition, it can see how many pages link to those pages, and look at many other signals that might help rank how they appear in search results.

Within social networks, a different set of signals may apply. For example, a social network user may be given a rank based upon things like how many “friends” or “fans” they may have, how many times their profiles were viewed, and even whether or not they have a photo.

A forum topic might be ranked by things like the number of replies and number of views, the time of a reply or view, and the relative importance of replies and views. An alternative and simpler approach might be based upon the time of the publication of a post, and how fresh it is.

A “Community” within a social network might be ranked based upon its posts, looking at something like the PageRank of each individual post within that community, and the total number of posts. In addition, it may be ranked based upon its members, looking at how many members it might have, their individual rankings, how long they’ve been members, and rankings of communities might be boosted based upon how recently the last post or reply might have been made in a forum or blog or community.

Two related patent filings make it look like Google was planning a social network that may look something like this:

A screenshot of a social network page, from the Google patent applications.

The patent applications were originally filed on August 17, 2007. The others focus more upon how a specific social network might work:

Some of the features described in these patent filings may make their way into a rumored Google +1 social network.

What do you think Google’s social network might look like?

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61 thoughts on “Hints of How Google May Rank Social Networks?”

  1. A Google social network? Haven’t heard that one. If that is true, then they will be moving on all fronts. For example, now they have their own article directory, Knol. Now possibly FaceGoogle. Where will it stop. Sorry for the rant. I know it is only a rumor.


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  3. Interesting find!… I think Google have had their eye on the social network scene as an opportunity for some time, but they are looking for the right opportunity. Just thinking about all the assets they have/had like knol, wave, buzz etc. It wouldn’t be hard for them to come up with something that is one third Facebook (neworking), one third Linkedin (groups) and on third Google Buzz (sharing).

  4. I think social ranking will only work with the largest social networking sites that have reached a certain member base so that sufficient data can be extracted. Currently as far as I understand, google uses only twitter directly for social authority ranking and may be their own properties like google buzz, but I think they will be rather carefully introducing other networks because they do not want to make their algorithm too dependent on external resources.

  5. Google’s “social network” will never take off, just like Microsoft never took off after Bill’s internal memo regarding Netscape.

  6. Interesting post Bill. If Google had a social network I’m not sure how it would look but I hope it wouldn’t look nothing like what’s in that illustration.

    This is probably a rumor, but if Google’s social network was to launch I think it would do pretty good just because there are a lot of loyal Google fans out there. Thanks for sharing Bill.

  7. Or Should we expect a simple mash-up of all networks?

    After all it’s in Google best interest (and eventually users as well) to keep them of Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter.

    Giving user the ability to have a social dashboard integrated within big G’s pages and allowing them to post or tweet directly from the page.

  8. Thanks Bill, it’s an interesting read.

    Looks like Google has been looking at social media for a long time (much longer than I realised!) and are now looking for opportunities to implement to provide the most reliable and relevant results.

  9. A Google Social network really sounds interesting. As of now, I just can’t yet imagine how it might look like but I think they might follow after the leading social network now. Google is really trying out all areas. I just hope they do succeed.

  10. Personally I don’t put a lot of faith into patents. Companies know that patents become public and often time patent things more as part of a legal strategy (safety-net) than an actual representation of their core technology.

  11. I thought Google was moving toward something like an “official” social networking offering when they really started pushing Google Buzz but it seems like it hasn’t really caught on by itself. Friend Connect seems to have fallen away a bit as well. I have no doubt that if Google were to jump into social networking with both feet it would shake things up since they already offer much of what Facebook and others have, except it is not neatly packaged together. What could they offer as an improvement? More coherent integration of existing google services which are already loosely integrated – gmail, gTalk, youtube, calendars, Google Places, etc and they probably would not have any problems with getting more mobile users to adopt.

  12. Hi Mark,

    I think that there’s a good chance that Google will give us a more social web, and is seriously looking for success in this area where they haven’t been as successful in the past as they might have been (such as Orkut and Google Buzz).

    For instance, they’ve been adding new features to things like Google Latitude, where you can now “check-in” to different locations and share that information with your friends. Google HotPot recommendations can be shared, and Google is just starting to show those in search results as well. While Google Buzz hasn’t garnered the attention that twitter has, it’s another area where Google has taken an existing product that they offer (GMail), and added a social element to it. Google Sidewiki enables you to provide anotations to web pages, and have others rate and comment upon those.

    Rather than having a social network along the lines of Facebook spring fully formed out of nowhere, Google seems to be building multiple social applications, many of which could potentially be pulled together. It’s not a terrible approach.

    Google may give us a more connected social network in the future, and there are a lot of rumors swirling around that they will. I don’t think we should be very surprised if we see one from them.

  13. Hi Robert,

    I agree. I think Google has been working at a lot of different angles, and working on making acquisitions that can help lead towards something like that. For instance, their purchase of Aardvark, which provides a social search. One of the patent filings I listed above describes a quick way of searching through existing communities on a social network, and making a new one where there isn’t one that covers the topic you may be interested in, with a way of discovering and inviting others who might be interested. I don’t think we’ll see a social network that is a clone of one that already exists, but as you note, we may see some things from places like Facebook and linked in showing up in what Google may deliver.

  14. Hi Andreas,

    Some good points. Google has seemed to rely primarily on data taken from sources that they have some control over. It’s possible that may be changing a little. For instance, there’s a chance that Google is turning to what it considers “expert sources” as described in some of the patent filings involving things like Google Trustrank, which looks to labels and annotations from sources like context files associated with Google Custom Search Engines.

    Having sufficient data to use in ranking signals is also important, and Google would need to be careful with not basing rankings for social objects upon very sparse and limited data.

  15. Hi John,

    I hope that Google’s conceptualization of what they might include in a social network goes beyond the screenshot from the patent filings as well.

    I remember being pretty excited about Orkut back when it was launched. Less so about Buzz. I suspect that a lot of people will try out a new social network from Google, but unless it can compete with what people seem to be getting form places like Twitter and Facebook, it may not have the success that Google might want.

  16. Hi Freddy,

    It’s possible that we might see a mashup of social networking services that Google already provides. Google does offer a lot of interesting applications that could be brought together in interesting ways, from sharing and collaboration in Google Docs, to location-based services to microblogging in Buzz, and more. An intelligently conceived social dashboard to draw all of those together could possible be something worth using.

  17. Hi trillodigital,

    Thanks. Hopefully Google has been learning from its successes and failures when it comes to social networks. I really don’t want to see a facebook clone, or a twitter clone from them. There are things that a linkedin could be doing that it doesn’t. Twitter is fast and easy to use, but Google Buzz somehow missed the mark (was it tying Buzz to Gmail, and the privacy problems around that approach that harmed it?)

  18. Hi Frank,

    I have run across a good number of patents that describe in detail some of the things that the search engines have been doing, though that’s not true with every patent. There are many reasons why someone might patent something, and the primary reason why I look at them often has less to do with relying upon them to tell me whether or not someone is going to come out with something in particular, and more to do with some of the assumptions that are being made in the patents.

    There’s a lot of folklore and mythology and rumors on the web about almost everything. While many patents might be filed as a “legal safety net,” one thing they have going for them is that they are actually primary sources of information from places like Google or Yahoo or Microsoft. If Google files a patent about a social network, it at least provides me with some information about things that they may have been looking into and researching and thinking about, and may find valuable enough to protect with a patent.

    I find it unlikely that Google will create a social network that looks like the screenshot above, from the images part of the three patents that I’ve listed. But, there are some interesting things that I’ve learned from the patent itself. One is that the people listed as inventors of the patent are Google employees, and I’ve looked them up to learn more about them, and what they’ve been working upon. Another is that Google’s approach to ranking information found on social networks may tend to emphasize fresh content more than older content – which makes sense since the value of microblogged content is often in receiving very timely information.

  19. Hi kercommunications,

    I recall reading towards the end of last year that Google was delaying the launch of a social network so that they could spend a little more time focusing upon mobile, and I suspect that whatever they do in the social networking arena will have a large mobile element to it.

    Integrating some of the features that you mention together may be part of what we end up seeing.

  20. I don’t think Google has a chance with a social network. Facebook is too popular and well known, unless the social network was REALLY revolutionary.

  21. Interesting read. I would think that a lot of those things, (big forum posts, pages with more “fans”, etc.) may just be part of having fresh content on a particular site. The webpage is consistently being updated by the users, rather than the webmaster.

  22. I have always kind of assumed that Google was smart enough to rank links based on the type of site it is and where the link is on the page. This patent basically verifies what everyone has been thinking all along. Thanks for sharing this information Bill.

  23. I think that it would take a little bit of time for Google to make a great social networking site like Facebook… BUT if google automatically added all of their gmail accounts to the social networking site, they could have a HUGE amount of users.
    You know the ‘connect’ tools that sites have to sign in with facebook on their site?
    Google could do that to connect peoples facebook accounts to their social site… That could be a serious money maker!
    Damn, I just thought of a great idea…WOW!

  24. Interesting read – I find it quite ironic how Google have been looking at the ranking of social networks since 2007, yet haven’t been able to actually make a presence within the social scene themselves!

  25. @Dre
    I think you’re definitely on to something there. As of Novemeber 2010 The Gmail user base was about 193.3 million. If they were to convert all gmail members to FaceGoogle members they would have a huge advantage over any current Facebook competitor. Most current competitors, even those well known in the tech industry like LinkedIn, can’t seem to break the 50 million user mark.

    Great idea..but in the end I think they might see a backlash unless they did it just right…It’ll be interesting to see what happens!

  26. I think a google social network would be cool but it would be very hard to sway people away from facebook and twitter. I’m sure they know what they’re doing but I think it would be equivalent of bing breaking into search. Google has such a large market share and leaves bing with very little room to work with.

  27. Myspace got derailed as the number one social network. So why can’t the same happen to Facebook. The web changes so fast, just look at where friends reunited is, compared to just a few years ago.

  28. Bill,

    You said, “I suspect that whatever they do in the social networking arena will have a large mobile element to it.” Do you think that, on the phones themselves, this might mean Google starts coding something directly into ‘droid, and aiming for a tighter integration than is offered with other social networks?

  29. What a fascinating read! You actually make seo easy to grasp – a lot of seo articles kind of fly over the average person’s head but when I read your posts it’s like, “Oh! That’s what everyone’s been trying to say?!?!” Great job.

  30. I’ve tried Google’s social products and the social aspect is very weak. Google Friend Connect is extremely hard to install and even harder to get connections for the average business – for instance I have 10 times as many Facebook fans for my travel site as I do Google Connections. I recently took down the GC widget just like I’d eliminate a non-paying tenant from my shopping mall.

    Google Latitude has me permanently located at the spot where I first activated my iPhone 3 years ago.

    Where I think Goog could make a big impact is with local reviews.

    I’d do 2 things – one, require a Google profile to write a Google review. Two, eliminate yelp, tripadvisor etc. from the Google places reviews. Businesses would be very happy to have an alternative to the anonymous slam reviews they get now and would start actively promoting.

  31. Hi Nathan,

    What you’ve described sounds like the philosophy that Google seems to have adopted under the reasonable surfer model.

    Google has shown us that the way that they might rank different kinds of pages may vary, based upon a number of different factors, so that they will look at different signals for news articles than they might for blog posts or for product pages on ecommerce sites. That they might target other factors for micro-blog posts shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s nice to see something like a patent that discusses how they might do that in some detail.

  32. Hi Eric,

    You might be right that Google has a considerable challenge in coming up with a social network after sites like Facebook have built such a strong head start. For them to have a chance of competing, they do seem to have to come up with something pretty remarkable.

  33. Hi Mark,

    I think that’s one of the most important elements of a social networking site – you need to make it as easy as possible for people to truly use the system that you’ve developed, and get out of the way enough so that they will.

  34. Hi Dre,

    There’s a lot of potential behind such an approach. One of the problems with Google Buzz was that people were upset about their Gmail connections automatically being considered as connections in a social network in a manner that was very public. So, they need to be very concerned about privacy issues when combining a social network with a service that they presently offer.

  35. Hi DB,

    There’s a difference between finding ways to rank social network offerings and building a social network itself. Google’s focus has been more on helping people find information than providing them with a platform to be social upon. While they’ve been focusing upon social networks, that focus hasn’t been upon building a great experience on those social networks.

  36. Hi FinallyFast,

    Good points. I think you’re right about the potential for a backlash though. When Google Buzz came out, the privacy concerns around GMail contacts was definitely a stumbling block.

  37. Hi Fritz,

    I think there is an element of the first mover problem involved both in social networks and search. Google has to offer something that is different enough and interesting enough to get people to come over to their social network, much like Bing having to provide a great experience in search that brings something different and in ways better. But, we’ve seen how Facebook was able to overcome the popularity of sites like MySpace. Perhaps there’s room for Google to take over some of that social space as well.

  38. Hi Bede,

    Before Eric Schmidt announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Google, he noted at a number of public presentations that Google was going to be focusing primarily on mobile platforms, to the point where they would develop for a mobile experience before a desktop experience. I think we’ll see that as an important part of whatever social offerings Google provides.

    I’m not sure that means that they will develop primarily for droid itself, but I think that whatever they offer will be easy to use on smaller screens, and may have some location-based services attached to them, such as the recent addition of check-in services for Google Latitude.

  39. Hi Joi,

    Thank you for your kind words. It isn’t always easy to try to take complex topics and try to make them accessible for a wider audience.

  40. Hi Juliemarg,

    I’m not sure how easy it might be for Google to make some of the features that they offer easier to use, and more accessible, but I think they’ve been looking at how to do exactly that. For instance, on the local review front, Google’s hotpot seems to do what you suggest with local reviews – make them both more social and easier to provide reviews. We’ll have to wait to see how successful Google ends up being on integrating services that they offer in a more user friendly fashion, but I think they are committed to try and do that.

  41. Very, very, interesting post. There’s been lot of speculation about how Google ranks ‘social networks’ (although this term is a bit ambiguous) and this is very insightful stuff. Now, extending on from this, which signals does google deem to be relatively important: for instance, how much does a ‘Like’ count for, compared to a tweet, or comment.
    This is also quite interesting for us, as we’re going to be establishing an upcoming legal recruitment blog and are dwelling on which signals to focus on, or at least allow users to use.
    Keep this excellent stuff coming Bill, particularly the information on Google’s assimilation of ‘social’ into its algorithm.

  42. Google really doesn’t have to be “the” social network. They have enough tools and apps that would naturally benefit from a social aspect and it will in turn create a vibrant community. I know they are this so called head to head with facebook but I think they could really benefit by working together on some open ways of communication with out having to fear one another.

  43. I’ve noticed that Delicious, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn get the best rankings out of the social networks. great post.

  44. Excellent post, Bill. Although there has been a great deal of speculation about how Google ranks social networks, this is definitely a topic to follow. Please keep up the great research and insight as we all keep our eyes on Google to see what the next move will be.

  45. Hi Michael

    Thank you. Going through just YouTube, and looking at all the ways that someone can comment upon, and annotate, and rank videos, as well as channels, it’s amazing the number of potential signals that there are to rank videos there. Expand the numbers and kinds of signals that you can find on other social networks, and it’s a little staggering. How do you weigh each of those signals against each other? Which ones provide the most helpful results in rankings? There’s a lot of room for testing, and testing, and testing some more.

  46. Hi Crystal,

    I agree – if Google offers enough social tools, without actually offering a social network, I’m not sure that it would harm them. Collaborating with sites like Facebook and Twitter might have more benefits than competing with them.

  47. Hi Ryan,

    Those networks do seem to do well in Google. Not sure of the last time I saw a myspace result in Google, but then again, I don’t search for bands too often either.

  48. Hi Robin,

    Thanks. There’s a good chance that Google’s approach to ranking social signals will change and evolve, just as the social networks change and evolve quickly.

  49. I cant seem to get my facebook profile above a PR of 0 for love or money – I have circa 450 friends…. have noticed some of them with PR3 or 4 with perhaps only a hundred more friends or so… Not that they know this (what their PR is), but it is most disheartening!

  50. Hi Matthew,

    PageRank is based upon the quantity and quality of links pointing to your pages from other pages. Most of the internal links on Facebook don’t actually pass along PageRank, so the number of friends that you have there isn’t going to make any difference. To boost your Profile’s PageRank, you would need to do things like post a link to the page from your blog (if you have one), and from other pages that might pass along PageRank through links.

  51. While Google surprises me every year at what they can dominate, I do not see them dominating the social network arena from scratch. I could see them dominating through an acquisition. Just imagine the number of times they could display ads if they owned Facebook.

  52. Hi Allen,

    I think Google is taking an interesting approach towards building a social network these days. Rather than trying to launch something completely from scratch, we’re seeing them add social elements to what they offer. GMail adds Google Buzz, Google Local Search now has HotPot, Google Mobile has Google Latitude, and when you create a Google Account, you have a “profile.” I don’t think building a social network piece by piece is a terribly bad idea, especially considering the strength of networks like Facebook.

    The opportunity for Google to acquire Facebook has probably come and gone a few years ago.

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  54. I’m new to the site and what an interesting post and so many really great comments. I agree that google are looking increasingly at add ons and now i see igoogle coming up when I open up my search so they pull in those who like a news service as a home page. Surely the obvious next step is an acquisition that ties a social media into this home page – or a tie in with existing SM platform/s. I can’t see them starting from scratch but buying and developing something existing – but then which one? If not an acquisition, maybe some kind of JV.
    I am sure they will give increasing weight to social media rankings with ‘likes’ and followers becoming more important. I have to say as a new business start up the time and effort it takes to build an SEO ranking taking this into account with all the blog commenting, stumbling, delicious, scribbd, tweeting and linkedin work is very distracting from the actual business! It would be nice if they gave a bonus 5th (for example) position in the rankings to a new kid on the block and changed it weekly! Wishful thinking!
    Look forward to reading more from you Bill and from all the commenters.

  55. Hi Jane,

    You must have set things up, without realizing it, to have iGoogle come up when you open search. You can change that so that it doesn’t if you don’t want it to.

    Google has been growing increasingly social in a number of ways, but most of those aren’t tied together, or at least they aren’t yet. There’s been some movement towards that over time, such as the use of a Google Account to sign in to YouTube and Blogger and other services.

    Al the social activities that you mention can be time consuming, and distracting from your actual business. I think there are times when it pays off being less social in places other than your own website, and more actively involved in developing your own pages and services. I’d rather spend a few more hours turning a good bloc post into a very good or even great blog post than spending the same amount of time tweeting or leaving a comment on someone else’s site.

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