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4 April 2011

Who approved the requirements for Google +1?

+1 icon
In a short word, no one. Ok, probably not entirely true; someone pretty smart came up with the idea, but it feels to me like no one really looked at how people use a search engine before the first version was released. If you're not familiar with Google +1, you can read the company's explanation, or you can use my shorthand as its really just Google's version of the Facebook 'Like' button.

Unlike the 'Like' button, +1 just doesn't seem to have a useful function in its current iteration. Don't believe me? Lets make a quick use case to explain why I feel this product just won't make it. The use case I'd like to explore is searching for the term 'user experience template'. I pick this as an example of something that doesn't quite fit (you can't template 'user experience') but its something that a complete novice to the field might consider. The case would go like this:
Look at the use case for a 'Like'... you see a big button 
  1. Open a new web browser window
  2. Go to ''
  3. In the search box, enter 'user experience template' and press enter. Google returns a list of search results.
  4. Click the first link in the search results in the middle of the page
  5. Review the page to determine if the result is useful for the query
In the list of search results returned in step 3, there is a +1 button to the right of all the returned results. This is where the idea of a +1 button fails. There are a few possible branches that this scenario could take, none of which result in a good use of +1.

First, the user could click the first link and find the exact right information they wanted. The page has everything: the right subject, the right level of detail, the right stuff. Sounds good, right? Let me just click that +1 button to rate the page up so anyone else who searches for this same topic knows that I already found the best page ever about the topic! Wait, where is that button again? Its gone!

Yes, that's right, the +1 button is back on the search page but I am already on the site that contains the content I wanted. For me to share my good find with the world, I must leave the exact place I really wanted to go. Does this sound right to you? It doesn't to me. It is rare when I search for a topic and find the perfect result (I'll get to other outcomes in a second), but when I do, what would motivate me to return to the search results, leaving the page with all the good information, just to click a button and then dive right back in to the page with the results I wanted in the first place? There is zero motivation for me to perform this action. None.

Second, the set of results returned by Google could have missed the point of what I was searching for entirely. This is pretty rare, but it has been known to happen. In this situation, there is no reason for me to ever press the +1 button as no link on the page deserves it. Here again, +1 is useless to me although the reason is different. In scenario 1, it was useless because it isn't accessible easily when I need it. In scenario 2, its useless to me because the content failed to return a good result for my inquiry.

The most likely scenario is that while my search terms made sense to me, Google likely only got close to what I wanted. The pages returned this time had some relation to what I really wanted, but either didn't hit the mark or the pages I look through (and its likely I had to look through many of them) are dated, have the wrong level of detail or are simply inaccurate.

This third case doesn't present a good use for +1, either. Yes, I could mark one or more of the results with a +1, as I return to the results page often in search of a better link. Yet, do any of these results really deserve a full +1? If the idea of +1 is for me to share things I really found useful, can I honestly say that any of these results were truly useful if I have to look at multiple links to find information that might come close to fitting my search query? Are they really a +1 or something like a +1/4?

Why 'Like' Works and '+1' Doesn't

Lets contrast the behavior of +1 with that of the Facebook Like Button. One argument might be that the Like button is simply a better detector of what is useful. I would dispute this. Go to your Facebook page, view your profile, scroll down to Activities and Interests and expand the Other section. This is a list of the pages you 'Like'. Do a quick count... of the ones listed there, how many have you visited more than 5 times? Now count how many you have there in total.
If you're like me, and according to some non-specific studies you probably are, then most Likes listed there are places you never visit anymore or you never really visited in the first place. Frankly, Likes are cheap, but that is exactly the point. The effort to use Like is simply click the button that is right next to whatever it is right in front of you. There is no backing up to a search page, no sifting through a list of results. No effort except a mouse move and a button click. Easy.

Requirements for a Usable +1

The idea behind +1 is sound, namely to get your users to help other users say what is useful; what is valuable; what is good. The problem is that doing so falls apart because of a poor workflow. What +1 needs is, frankly, its own button. When Facebook created a Like button that anyone could put on their web page, they understood that making their 'share' button accessible to users in the moment is the key to it being used.

Consider the grocery store to see this behavior in action. Where do they place the candy and trashy magazines? Right next to the register, right within reach. Sure, there's a dedicated candy isle for when you really need the big fix (the same as the location of the +1 button in Google search results), but the return on placing the candy right at your fingertips (Facebook Like button) is much higher.

Yes, I'm sure that, if it doesn't already exist, Google has an embedded version of +1 coming to compete with the Facebook Like button. Twitter and LinkedIn both have one, so why not Google, too? In fact, I would not be surprised if the +1 embedded button exists, but hasn't been rolled out yet simply because they don't want to be the forth entry into that space. It will come, but just not yet.

If Google didn't want to be forth in the list, there are a few things they could have done along side the search result placement of the +1 button. Google has a fantastic web browser in Chrome. Adding a +1 button to the toolbar, right next to the yellow star bookmark button, would have been trivial but infinitely better than +1 in the search results.

But a button in Chrome only gets them about 11% of the worldwide browser share.  For the other 89%, they could have done other more invasive, possibly destructive, methods to get +1 in front of user's mouse pointers. They could have done an annoying +1 hover over that embeds itself on top of the page that loads after search results are clicked. They could have loaded the linked page in a frame with a new toolbar at the top or bottom of the page that included a +1 button. These suggestions are worse than having an ineffectual +1 button as they frustrate users, but they are alternatives that could have made +1 more useful than it is now.

My preferred solution would be to combine +1 with the Instant Preview feature. They have, to the extent that the instant preview and +1 buttons are right next to one another on the page, done this, but Google missed out in making these two work well together. To activate the instant preview, you have to click the magnifying glass button, scan the preview and then move your mouse back to click the +1 button. The problem here is that my eye has been distracted from +1 because I'm now looking at the preview and not the buttons. 

Its the same problem as if I clicked the link and went to the linked page, just slightly less difficult because the button is still technically still available. What should have been done was to incorporate the +1 button into the preview itself, say in the '<' that points back to the selected link or again as some kind of translucent hover on top of the preview page.

Fixing +1

Will Google change +1 to make it really useful? Your guess is as good as mine. Google is known for putting out half (or 3/4) baked ideas out there to see what works. I actually like this about them; they're more than willing to fail many times to find that one thing that really works. I wish I could have been the analyst who worked on this project because I feel +1 has potential to be really useful, especially if I could see links my friends, those people in my Google Contact list, have found useful as well. Maybe when (if) Google's social network finally lands, we'll see the genius behind +1 that is currently hidden. One can only hope!