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This week Google added their “+1” button to AdWords text ads. +1 is the Google version of Facebook’s “Like” concept. 

The idea behind +1 for AdWords ads is to improve ad relevancy through collaborative filtering. For advertisers, the benefit is allegedly that this will help bring more relevant users. To quote the Google announcement directly:

We expect that personalized annotations will help users know when your ads and organic search results are relevant to them, increasing the chances that they’ll end up on your site. You don’t have to make adjustments to your advertising strategy based on +1 buttons, and the way we calculate Quality Score isn’t changing

This concept, by the way, is also borrowed from Facebook. Facebook shows ads that include the name of a friend that liked the ad (or at least the advertiser’s fan page) and measures these as “social clicks” and “social impressions.” Facebook’s internal research suggests up to a 4X improvement in CTR when a friend’s name is mentioned as liking an ad (no link here but I saw this in a Facebook PPT).

The difference, here, however, is that Facebook gleans all of its social proof from fan pages, articles, or app downloads, and not from the actual ad itself. This makes sense to me – consumers may be willing to “like” a fan page or an interesting article, but why would consumers spend their time actually liking ads? Indeed, consumers generally hate ads – or at least claim they do. TiVo exists for a reason!

I could imagine a scenario where consumers +1 a funny ad, but then, does that really create additional relevancy for the advertiser? I suppose for brand advertisers or for companies that just want to create virality, perhaps the +1 element enables them to attempt this sort of viral strategy on AdWords. The ability to actual achieve this at scale, however, is going to be a challenge, simply because direct marketers will likely outbid any cheeky attempts at virality.

My best guess for where this is actually going is that Google will start to co-mingle +1 ratings of web sites with +1 friend data in ads. In other words, let’s say I +1 the Apple.com site because I am a Mac geek (I’m not, but suspend your disbelief for the sake of the argument). Google could then show my name in all of Apple’s ads when any of my Google-connected friends do a search for which Apple has a keyword. A bit misleading, but basically the same concept that Facebook now uses.

Of course, right now, I have about 14 friends with which I am socially connected via Google (going on 24 hours on Plus.Google.com, thanks to Tim S!) and I have yet to personally +1 anything. So the only way this will really work is if Google is successful at getting a lot of people to either switch from “likes” to +1, or at least use them both interchangeably. Given Google’s prior failures in social media (Buzz, Orkut, Wave), success is not a foregone conclusion here. I will say, however, that the reception to Google Plus has been much more positive than any of these other forays into social media. This one might stick.

The final point I want to make about +1 and AdWords is the notion that +1 won’t affect Quality Score. This seems to me to be a preposterous notion. Assuming +1 really does act as a signal for relevancy, and assuming that Google gleans data about user perceptions of both ads and pages, it would be nonsensical for Google not to use +1 to influence Quality Score. Indeed, I would argue that for auctions where there are enough +1 rankings, QS should be disregarded entirely! Think about this, if I do a search for “ipad” and 100 of my friends have +1’d a penny auction site that has great deals on iPads, why should QS (an opaque combination of generic CTR and Google’s qualitative opinion of a site’s merit) trump what my social circle has recommended?

My assumption is that Google’s claim here is for one of two reasons: first, so that people don’t try to game the system by +1ing their ads to increase QS. Second, because +1 would probably be more transparent than QS, which could enable advertisers to crack Google’s murky pricing (which would cost Google money). Google now offers “relative CTR” on Google Content, enabling advertisers to see how their CTR compares against the competition. I can imagine a future where an advertiser complains “I’ve got a relative CTR 5X higher than the competition, one million +1’s, and you’re telling me my average QS is 2?”

All of this is pretty confusing to me right now, and I apologize if this post was a bit scatterbrained. +1 another wrinkle for us online marketers to figure out!