Pondering about web design

Social buttons

23 March 2013

Are there benefits in placing social and sharing buttons on a site? I’ve always been quite ambivalent about them. I use social networking sites, and if I want to share something, then I copy and paste the URI, rather than use the buttons on the page. Perhaps I’m in a small minority in doing so. It doesn’t really happen that often anyway, as I rarely share webpages, and only after I had the chance to read or see it. So when a website shoves lots of buttons in my face as I land on a page, I recoil, and get rather annoyed, and wonder why they are so desperate in having me share the content or like their sites, before I had the opportunity to read and assess the quality of the content. The worst offender is the box that pops up as I enter the site, asking me to like the site’s Facebook page: I almost always hit the browser’s back button at this point.

As this is a personal hobby site, my priorities are naturally different from many other sites, that are a medium to achieve something, such as selling products and services, and I prioritize the design of the site and the utility for visitors above other considerations. In other words, my first questions, when it comes to using third-party plug-ins – in this instance social buttons – are: 1) do they look good on my site; and 2) are they useful for the visitors? I place more or less the same degree of priority to these two considerations, and in the best case, something would be great visually and useful. However, quite often, there is a trade-off, and I have to weigh up whether adding something on the page will compromise the look of the site, and if that being the case, how much I would tolerate. As an aside, I go through a similar decision-making process regarding advertisements, as I have to think in terms of design implications and potential revenue.

Social buttons, as well as Facebook Like and Google +1 buttons, are useful, but they can be visually quite intrusive. I have experimented with various placements and combinations: at the top of the page, at the bottom of the page, and in the sidebar. I have oscillated between using AddThis and ShareThis, and sometimes I have placed the Tweet button as well as Facebook Like and Google +1 buttons, sometimes with count bubbles, sometimes inline, and sometimes without the count. Currently, I use AddThis, and specified buttons for e-mail, Facebook share and Twitter, and I have added a Google +1 button. In an ideal world, I would have had both Facebook Like and Google +1 buttons, but visually and spatially, especially with smartphones in mind, I felt that I had to choose one, and I opted for the +1 button.

One of the main reasons that I chose Google +1 over Facebook Like is my familiarity with the product. I get how Google+ works, whereas I really don’t get how Facebook works any more: I had joined Facebook quite early on, when MySpace was all the rage, and I liked it, but a few years later and with quite a few changes, I dropped off Facebook, and as far as I am concerned, it’s a huge maze, in which I am utterly lost whenever I venture into it. That’s a matter of personal taste, but another good reason is that +1 buttons look to be better-integrated with Google+ and other Google products and services, including personalized search (SPYW: Search plus Your World), compared to the integration of Likes to Facebook (and Bing).

Webpages are linked bi-directionally to the Google+ landscape through the author (Google+ profile) and publisher (Google+ page) mark-ups, so while Google may not yet be utilizing the +1 data, or connecting it with other pieces of information it possesses, it is building a base on which it could potentially make sense of that information in the future. A single +1 can be interpreted, potentially, in many different ways: it’s an approbation of the content of that page, but because the page is linked to a Google+ profile and a Google+ page, a +1 could in the future (NB: this is a wild speculation as to what may occur in the future) pass on some of that approval to the author and the site? In other words, if Google were to use the +1 data, and if someone +1s writings of a particular author a number of times, would Google take that into account, deciding that that person holds the author in high regard, hence more likely to rank content by that author higher in search results? It’s this potential of connections between different entities that prompted me to choose +1 over Like, on a fairly long-term prospect. If Google launches a strongly personalized search option, beyond the current SPYW, then social connections’ +1s will count, not only within the Google+ landscape, but in Google search and other Google products and services. There have been many ifs in this paragraph, but the general direction seems clear, and I’ve decided to bet on Google+.

Facebook Like buttons establish a link between the webpages and the people who liked them, and it’s possible to track the interactions taking place on Facebook, to a certain degree, by using a Facebook app, but I have found Likes to be of limited use, beyond a glimpse into interaction in the Facebook landscape. There is no real or close integration of the Facebook page, the Likes, the webpage, and the author: they are mediated by the Facebook app and imperfectly connected to the various Facebook entities. Social sharing seems to work to bring clusters of visitors to the site through personal connections, but they rarely extend beyond the immediate circles of people, unless there is a huge and varied following of the person sharing the material. Sharing on Facebook has had a better impact in this respect than placing the Like button. Facebook probably could do a lot more with the Like data, and it has accumulated a huge amount of data, which is a veritable gold mine of social connections and nexuses, but it seems unable to make much sense of them, or in a way that influences a search engine through partnership with Bing.

Social networking sites are a great way to connect with others, and as sources of traffic, often in clusters, as I have mentioned above, but I do not expect direct substantial benefits in terms of search engine rankings. I doubt any search engines are using or making sense of the personal and social connections in any fundamental ways: the reason being, I suspect, because of the really complex nature of human interactions and connections. They may do so in the future, but they will face a lot of problems, and a lot of noise.

It will be interesting to see how webpages and other entities will interact with social networking sites in the coming months and years, and I will keep experimenting with the social buttons. Who knows, I may even ditch the +1 button in favour of the Like button in the near future.