Google's +1 button is becoming more useful thanks to its ties to Google+, and now the company is considering whether +1 data should affect page rankings in Google searches.
Wired's Ryan Singel has confirmed that Google is studying whether to use +1 data to tweak search rankings. According to a Google spokesperson, "The purpose of any ranking signal is to improve overall search quality. For +1's and other social ranking signals, as with any new ranking signal, we'll be starting carefully and learning how those signals are related to quality."
In theory, Google could use data from its social network to help weed out spam or bring to the surface articles with a high number of +1 endorsements. But Google must tread lightly in this area, as Singel points out. The Federal Trade Commission is already probing Google on anti-trust grounds, following complaints that the company uses its search and advertising dominance to promote its own products over the competition. If the +1 button starts having a measurable impact on search rankings, Webmasters may feel pressured to adopt the +1 button on their own sites or advertise the +1 more prominently than Facebook's "Like" button.
Rick Brunell, Director of Legal Advocacy for the American Antitrust Institute, tells PCWorld that Google's potential use of +1 data in search rankings isn't a glaring antitrust issue. The FTC might look into it as part of its probe, Brunell says, but, on its face, Google's interest in social networking seems like a positive thing.
"The concerns are lessened because there's a benefit to consumers for Google going into that market," Brunell says.
Still, Google is being careful in how it frames the use of +1 in search results. The company told Wired that more than 200 signals factor into a page's search ranking, suggesting that +1 is just one signal among many. A Forbes story from earlier this month suggested that Webmasters would risk lower page ranks if they didn't incorporate the +1 button, but that story has since been removed without explanation.