Move Over TrustRank, Make Room for Trust Buttons

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Years ago, I started referring to search results as recommendations, seeing how they’ve been starting to look more and more like that part of a page at Amazon that says “people who viewed this book also looked at these books.”

When someone searches at a search engine, one of the things they look for in the search results they receive are trustworthy pages (or recommendations) that look (and are) legitimate. How does a search engine deliver pages that are trustworthy?

One way to do that might be to try to boost pages in search results that the search engine feels are more trustworthy – and Google developed a version of Trust Rank to do that with. The inventor of Google’s Trust Rank (which differs from the version that Yahoo invented) is Ramanathan Guha.

In addition to being one of the major forces behind custom search engines at Google, he authored a paper on Trust and Web pages while he was at IBM before he joined Google, which makes for interesting reading – it’s at Propagation of Trust and Distrust (pdf).

Author Badges and Trust

A couple of years ago, I wrote the post, After Authorship Markup, Will Google Give Us Author Badges Too? It’s about how Google might display within search results some signs that an author is the creator of content, including a link to their Google Profile that potential readers can use to verify the author is whom they claim to be.

Google has been showing author profile pictures for with some search results when a searcher wasn’t logged into their Google account, leading many to the conclusion that Google might implement an author rank as some point, where pages with rich snippets showing these authors’ photos might be the kind of pages that get boosted in search results.

With most rich snippets, the addition of these profile pictures has been cited as a visual change that breaks up a traditional looking 10 blue links set of search results, and a possibility that the profile picture might influence more click throughs. The Author Badges patent doesn’t promise the display of a search result with a photo in it, but it does mention the possibility of including a byline that is attached to a link – that a searcher can use to learn more about the author by clicking upon it. It seems like the intention behind that is to improve trust in those results.

A search result for [SEO] that includes my byline, linked to my Google profile page.

Google Webmaster Evangelist John Mueller announced at the end of this past June that Google was redesigning these author badge results so the they won’t display photos or circle counts any more, but would continue to include bylines. I’m working on another post presently that explores changes in search results based upon Google+, and it will look at some Google studies that may have influenced changes to those in the past.

Trust Buttons

It’s possible that Google is still using their version of Trust Rank, which relies upon the annotations or labels that people create for pages in their Custom Search Engines, and may boost pages that have been labeled with something relevant to the queries used to find those pages. Those Authorship bylines may continue to appear in search results for searchers to use to verify the identity of the creators of pages.

Or, if they were available, you could just place “Trust Buttons” on people’s websites that people can click on to tell Google that they trust the author of the Web site.

A patent granted to Ramanathan Guha last week describes how Trust buttons mght work at Google to provide recommendations from trusted sources. It’s possible that Google may never develop trust buttons. But, with things like unique digital signatures on Google Accounts, it is possible for Google to follow and base trust recommendations on people who produce content for the web, and who search and may leave a search history behind that could be relied upon by others who may indicate that they trust those people.

Trust buttons would be one way of obtaining recommendations from someone whom you know and trust.

Asking for recommendations from someone whom you’ve identified as being a person you trust might lead to direct recommendations, or those recommendations could influence search results that you see.

The patent tells us that identifying that a searcher trusts recommendations associated with a specific entity can involve:

  • Receiving input directly from the searcher indicating the user trusts recommendations associated with the entity (such as in the pressing of a “trust” button – though an actual button might not be used);
  • Using a web crawler to examine web pages to locate information indicating that the user trusts recommendations associated with the entity;
  • Examining web visitation patterns of the user and inferring from the web visitation patterns that the user trusts recommendations associated with the entity; or
  • Examining computer-based records belonging to the user, such as an email contact list or an instant-messaging chat list, and inferring from the computer-based records that the user trusts recommendations associated with the entity.

The patent is:

Method and apparatus for obtaining recommendations from trusted sources
Invented by Ramanathan V. Guha
Assigned to Google
US Patent 8,762,394
Granted June 24, 2014
Filed September 13, 2012


One embodiment of the present invention comprises a system that provides recommendations to a user.

During operation, the system performs a computer-based lookup operation to identify trusted entities that the user trusts (or is likely to trust) to make recommendations.

Next, the system performs another computer-based lookup operation to obtain recommendations associated with the identified trusted entities. The system then uses the obtained recommendations to provide recommendations to the user.

In a variation on this embodiment, the system additionally receives information indicating that the user trusts recommendations associated with an entity. The system then stores a corresponding record for the trust relationship between the user and the trusted entity in a computer-based lookup structure to facilitate subsequently identifying trusted entities that the user trusts to make recommendations.

Take Aways

The patent describes attempting to understand who we trust, and it might limit the topics where we seem to trust a person to certain things, like SEO or medicine or soccer or physics.

An actual “trust” button might not be involved, but if you frequently visit the website of someone, follow links that they post on the web, and display other behavior that appears to indicate some level of trust, it could potentially result in recommendations made to you based upon that entities actions, or pages in search results boosted based upon pages they might be affiliated with, or that they’ve given attention to.

A trust relationship might “decay” if it seems like the trusting user isn’t taking actions on the recommendations from the trusted entity.

Entities trusted by the trusted entity might be considered transitive trusted entities by this system, and could be trusted by the searcher/user trusting the original entity.

We’ve heard the phrase “trustrank” used before in relation to Yahoo’s trustrank algorithm, which looks at how many links away that pages might be from a seed set of “trusted” or “good” pages.

Instead of just limiting trust to a link analysis, this trust button approach looks at the relationships between people (and likely organizations or businesses as well, since they are entities, too) creating content, making recommendations, and visiting web pages, and people who might find those recommendations and that content useful and helpful, and something they might trust.

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24 thoughts on “Move Over TrustRank, Make Room for Trust Buttons”

  1. Bill,

    The way you view and understand various concepts has always amazed me. You have some real talent.

    From the way I understand your article here, it sounds like to me that it’s pretty possible that Google is and or will be using author trust in the near future.

    I know some of our Google+ friends who will love that you’ve written this. Have a great day Bill – take care.

    Greg Smith

  2. Hi Bill,

    I am always amazed with your insights. You are simply my role model I would say. The way you look into SEO perspective is what we see for in future. I read this blog twice and have jotted down what all you have discussed here. Thanks a lot for sharing.

  3. These 2 are interesting;

    – Examining web visitation patterns of the user and inferring from the web visitation patterns that the user trusts recommendations associated with the entity; or
    – Examining computer-based records belonging to the user, such as an email contact list or an instant-messaging chat list, and inferring from the computer-based records that the user trusts recommendations associated with the entity.

    Quite personal information that they are using?

  4. Once again, more incredible information. Search engines are really becoming these massive AIs that are calculating context and trust. Really great read!

  5. Problem with things like these are that people will always look for ways to manipulate them. I remember when Google once had the ability to say whether you disliked a website which got battered by SEOs looking for ways to manipulate the results.

  6. Bill, are you aware of anything like this related to customer reviews on local business listings (aka Google+ Local pages)?

    This sort of activity is an explicit act of trust (or distrust) and Google, not to mention the public, can obviously see the identity/entity behind the review.

    Couldn’t something similar be implemented for authors, domains, and pages? Is it just to hard to scale that?

  7. Great stuff… Well, if LinkedIn endorsements are any indication, crowdsourcing trust buttons may not be a very good signal. I would think Google would always use the algorithmic (indirect) method of calculating a trust metric – possibly using the buttons as a cross check? People who have strong correlation between algorithmic trust rank and button-based could “earn” the use of more button-based endorsements. Lots of interesting ideas here. And we know Google would like to move away from pure link-trust, so it’ll stay interesting!

  8. If “trust buttons” are going to be actual buttons on a web page somewhere, I can’t imagine they’d be anything other than “add us to your google plus circles,” or something to that effect.

    That could be a step towards “trust buttons” that aren’t literal buttons, but are, as Bill suggested, a set of signals that imply trust – such as visiting a website and clicking on its links.

    More likely, to address what @Adam mentioned above about manipulation of trust signals, one of the ways for google to combat abuse and to build in safeguards against it is to use the trust-verification signals as a filter on the literal buttons (ie, if user A “trusts” a site by adding it to his circles, but never goes to the site or never takes action when he does go there, his “trust” is discounted heavily). With visible circle counts but invisible trust-verification signals, SEOs could easily be misled into wasting a lot of time and effort building circle counts without building value.

  9. Hi Bill, You always astonished us with your informative pieces. Your SEO knowledge is awesome. This article gives me lot of information. Thanks for sharing with us.

  10. This is just daffy. Using trust signals as you describe, G would infer that you very much trust Larry Kim. Presumably G would then start giving a heavier weight to paid search content in your search results.

    Trust buttons ,which would absolutely. Never. Be. Implemented., are more ripe for abuse then even Google Authorship or +1 buttons.

    I understand the intent of this blog is to muse about G’s patent filings and provide context. But, if you did your job accurately here, this patent is rubbish. This looks like opportunistic work done in an environment where the CEO had decreed that everyone’s compensation was now tied to social metrics.

  11. Hi Joe,

    I didn’t write the patent, but I have linked to it for you to read and analyze on your own. If you think the patent is rubbish, you’re more than welcome to write to the inventors and Google and tell them that. Criticizing me for what the patent says is misguided. I welcome any criticism you have about the patent.

    Opportunistic work? – That’s really funny, because everyone know that search patents are pure linkbait. 🙂

    “Heavier weight to paid search content in my search results.” – That’s not really how paid search and organic search works. You don’t see more ads in search results based upon what you click upon in search results.

  12. Hi Natan,

    I suspect that we won’t see actual buttons unless they are something that might be built into Google+ profile pages. An “implied” trust is much more likely. I could see Google using its search history tracking when people are logged in as an important source for these types of signals.

  13. Hi Scott,

    I agree – the use of an implied method of calculating trust seems more Google’s style as well. For instance, Google may look at information on a profile for a person, but they like to learn about our likes and dislikes and interests from the conversations we have with others, who we connect to, and what we talk about – the kinds of things that we might call “implied” interests rather than express ones. I’m not sure that they would need the pushing of a button as even a cross check. 🙂

  14. Hi Bill,

    I’m not sure if Google would treat this showing of trust as something like an endorsement, which seems to be the way that +1 buttons were intended to work. But Google has scaled the +1 buttons for others to see.

  15. Hi Adam

    Are you referring to the feature that allowed searchers to remove pages from the search results that they saw? It wouldn’t remove them for everyone- just them. The idea that something like that could lead to removing a reult for veryone was a little disturbing.

  16. Hi Kieran

    It’s very similar to the kind of information that might be used to personalize results for you based upon your search history, or for people “similar” to you, which is something that Google has stated in a few patents that they probably would look at.

  17. Hi Colin

    I don’t think I’m speculating a little too closely there. When I read that in the patent, I wondered how wise it might be to do that, but that’s definitely in there.

  18. I’m afraid you lost me when I got to this comment “Entities trusted by the trusted entity might be considered transitive trusted entities by this system, and could be trusted by the searcher/user trusting the original entity.”
    Trust is obviously important but I think you may be speculating a little too deeply

  19. Bill,

    I need you to make sure to share everything you write directly with me on Twitter 🙂 (almost missed this)…

    I assume that trust buttons could be anything clickable on a website that Google can assign some level of trust correlation to?


  20. Hi JR

    I make a habit of sharing what I post on Twitter and Google+ to have proof that I can point to about when I posted something in case someone else tries to claim that they wrote it and are the author. Google Authorship markup should actually register the time and date that I publish something and get rid of attributions problems like that, but old habits die hard, and there are still a lot of scrapers out there. 🙂

    The patent refers to actual trust buttons, but then immediately describes “implied trust buttons” as well. I may have a chance to meet Ramanathan Guha this fall at a conference I’m presenting out, and hopefully the chance to ask him more about it will come up. 🙂

  21. I agree with the comment by Gregory above. I believe that Google will also be using the author trust in the near future. Anyway great post Bill. I just found your site today. The content is great along with great comments by visitors.

  22. Brilliant post Bill.
    As somebody who has this couple pattens under their belt and as somebody who knows that you were almost a patent attorney I find it really awesome that you’re actually taking the time to read these and distill them down for us.

    Your wave distributing information is superb thank you for the photograph is well described and what was happening I think that we are seeing trust buttons being used and pushed by google magic lawn so to say. And who knows in the future we’ve seen stranger things in the past happen I would not surprise me at all we were to gain the trust button or two I would trust on this.

    All the best, Tom

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