Thoughts on Google+

Views metric

Google+ profiles and pages now have a new look. Instead of the number of followers on Google+ profiles, and the number of +s on Google+ pages, which was an aggregate of +1s on the Google+ page and the linked website via rel="publisher", followers, and certain forms of interaction as well as community ownership, both types of Google+ entities now show the number of followers, and the number of views. For many people, views are a pretty large number, and for some, the figure is extremely large, counted in the millions. This recent change has been discussed extensively on Google+, and naturally there are many different opinions: some people like the change, others do not. I am in the latter camp, and my main issues with the new views metric fall into the following areas: (1) meaninglessness or uselessness of the figure; (2) vulnerability to spam and fakery; (3) lower quality in Google+ as the chase for the views is on; and (4) numbers beget numbers.

At this point, I should stress that I am somewhat prematurely an old curmudgeon, who does not take well to changes, and my normal reaction to something new is to be against it, because it’s new, until at some point I become used to it or suddenly see the benefits, and grudgingly admit that I was wrong, even eventually very much liking it. So if you were to ask me about the new views on Google+ profiles and pages in six months, I might give you a totally different answer, however strongly I am critical of them now.

1: Does the number mean anything?

In my view, the best question to start with is: what does the number mean? While what exactly counts as a view remains somewhat unclear, since Google+ posts can be viewed in many different places and manners, thus the following may be subject to correction, it seems reasonably clear that posts in Google+ streams including the posts reshared or appearing by the virtue of being +1d, embedded posts on external sites, and posts expanded on Mr Jingles notifications (but not while collapsed) all count as views. Photographs add to the views count, generally when they are clicked on and seen in the image viewer. Broadly speaking, whenever a post as a post is viewed, or a photograph as a photograph is viewed, such counts towards views. It would of course be really good to know the exact situations where views occur, but for a broad discussion such as this, the above definition would – hopefully – suffice.

In other words, any view by anyone on any post or photograph, regardless of any interaction or engagement, will count towards views. The implied consequences will be explored later, but here the problem is that the views cannot be a qualitative measure, since a view might be the result of someone reading the post, commenting on it, and starting and continuing a discussion, or it might be a chance appearance on someone’s stream because it was +1d by a person in his or her circles whom he or she has been too lazy to remove, and the post is not even read but glazed over. To me, these two situations are totally different qualitatively, yet counted as a view in each case, and in that sense treated with equal value.

There is validity to the argument that states that many people enjoy reading other people’s content without actively engaging with it. I fall into that category in certain instances: I follow certain Google+ profiles and pages without really engaging with their content, and I often do not even +1 their posts. So in that respect, it makes sense to offer a very vague notion of how large the readership is to the profile and page owners. Yet it does raise the question: why should it be made public? The figure would be most useful for the owners, so yes, share it with them, but making it public leads to competition, because with these kinds of things especially quantified in simple numbers, there is a competitive nature in many human beings.

My next big question would be: what does the number of views tell me? This is where I would argue that the number is more or less meaningless, because of indifferentiation of quality mentioned above (engagement with a post versus almost accidental view of a post), and lack of any useful information. I would like to know, for example, who my visitors are: where do they come from, are they predominantly male or female, are they young or old, do they often come back to read my posts, how are they accessing my posts, where are they seeing my posts (on their own streams because they follow me, or on communities), how long are they spending reading my content, etc, etc. The views figure does not tell me any of that.

A big figure is just that. A big, fat, indeterminate blob of a number, devoid of any proper shape or contour. There is no point trying to dice and slice it, since such will just result in sludges of meaninglessness.

2: Spammers and fakers, rejoice?

In my view, Google has created a really big gate, and left it wide open to abuse. I do not believe Google is naive, and it must be aware that spammers and fakers will attempt to inflate the number of views, as such it must be reasonably confident that it has the wherewithal to identify and discount spam and fake views. However, in my opinion, Google nevertheless has created a big and new space for spammers and fakers to operate. Google may be confident that any spam or fake views will be confined to the degree that would not threaten the integrity of the views figure on Google+, yet fighting spam – whether in web search, AdSense, or Google+ – is an unceasing and arduous war, where spammers and fakers seem to win many battles.

On Google+, there have been issues with fake profiles and pages that furnish fake +1s and fake followers. The views metric is arguably more easily manipulated, and at a larger scale than fake +1s and fake followers. One reason is that fake +1s and fake following require a fake Google+ entity which could only be used once: a Google+ entity can +1 something – a post or a photograph – once, and it cannot +1 the same thing twice or more, and similarly, a Google+ entity can only follow a Google+ profile or a page once or not follow it at all. Unlike fake +1s and followers which require Google+ entities that could essentially be used only once for the purpose, one distinguishing characteristic about views is repeatability. Patterns will emerge from fake +1s and following, since such actions are targeted to concrete actions, but patterns may be harder to discern for fake views: genuine views will come from hugely different types of users and user habits. Given the complexities of how views are generated, the overlap between genuine and fake views might well be more substantial than activities of fake Google+ entities and genuine Google+ profiles and pages. Google would rather let a few spammers and fakers be, than punish and exclude genuine users who might look like spammers and fakers.

Spamming is already rife and it is likely to increase, and Google+ communities may be particularly vulnerable to attempts at spam. It is already the case that many amateurish attempts are made at spamming communities: such obviously spammy efforts are normally and thankfully filtered automatically and sent to the moderation queue. The object has hitherto been link dropping, i.e. generating traffic to external sites, but henceforth the aim will be increasing and inflating the number of views. What spammers with the intention of artificially inflating views but without the intention to interact will post materials – possibly stolen or borrowed, or just reshared – minimally relevant to the communities, so that they are not removed by the owners and moderators. Another way to put it is thus: the intention is to inflate the number of views, and taken as a whole, the actions are spammy, but at the level of individual posts, they cannot be deemed as spam.

Whatever Google does to Google+, there will always be those who attempt to spam and fake their way through: I cannot but feel that this new metric has made it easier for spammers and fakers to get away with their activities.

3: Salami-sliced, repeated, and reshared: fewer originals of less substance?

While attempts at spam, or trying to big themselves up by purchasing of fake views would be something that compromises the credibility of the views figure, and Google will undoubtedly make a great effort to counter such efforts, a heavy emphasis on views may change how people post on Google+. Instead of chunky, meaty, juicy posts, people may be tempted to engage in salami slicing: in other words, splitting the content of what would be a single post over a few different posts to boost the number of posts thus views. It happens in academe, and it is also a little similar to online publications that divides articles into numerous pages to increase the number of page views.

In addition to salami posting, as it were, there may be more repeats of past posts, like certain television channels that keep on repeating old episodes of a popular series: repeat posting does serve certain purposes, because of the time differences, or cyclical relevance, but there is now an added incentive to post the same post again, and again, and again. Cross-sharing of posts between the Google+ profile and Google+ pages owned or managed by that Google+ profile will happen more often: I am guilty of that, but now there is an added reason to do so, since a reshared posts will count towards views for both the original poster and for the resharer. There may be more formal pacts, tacit understanding, or even expectation of mutual sharing that both parties benefit.

There is a strong argument that people will stop following profiles and pages that needlessly post vacuous, irrelevant materials, and creating too much noise: I certainly have stopped following certain profiles and pages that seem to post successively in clusters a number of times during the day. At the same time, I tolerate quite a lot of repetition, deviation, and resharing, since I would not like to miss on their original output and insight.

Publish or share something, anything, or perish, that is the views game. The chase for views unduly privileges quantity over quality, since any view by anyone on anything will do: the only deterrent is that too poor a quality of output will result in alienation of followers, which in turn will lead to fewer followers, that eventually ends up in a slower increase in views. Is that a fair assumption? The following section will deal with this issue.

4: Big numbers lead to even bigger numbers?

As I have argued earlier in this piece, I do not think the numbers mean much, but numbers giving the illusion of definite and comparable measurement of popularity can be used to convince people. Put it simply, are you more likely to trust or hold in higher esteem someone or something, whose Google+ profile or page has been viewed 25 million times, compared to another person or thing, whose Google+ profile or page has been viewed 25,000 times? I won’t lie: I’d lower my guard for the person or the thing that has accumulated 25 million views, compared to 25,000 views. Numbers do not necessarily reflect quality, but it is easy to think so, and be overawed or convinced by a large number. Companies often tout how many units of a product has been sold over the past year as a proof of its popularity and by extension the quality.

I’d like to go back to the question posed in the last section, whether it is fair to assume that views-chasing low-quality output will result in loss of followers. I think that might well be true that poor output will result in loss of followers, but the question is the net number of followers. In other words, can a large number convince more people to follow a Google+ profile or a page than it might lose from its poor quality? While I can see that there will be cases where there is a net loss, my gut feeling – and nothing more than that, so it is a pure assertion – is that a profile or a page with a sufficient number of views will attract people to follow it, thus posts a net gain in most cases. More followers beget more views, more views beget more followers, and a virtuous cycle, as far as the Google+ profile or page owner is concerned, starts.

As a coda to this section, I wonder if the in-built advantage for early adopters will discourage new entrants to Google+. I certainly do not begrudge those with very large numbers of views: they have often been at the forefront of making Google+ an interesting and exciting place to be, and thoroughly deserve the numbers. Yet, at the same time, should views be cumulative from a certain date? There will be new entrants who will quickly pick up a large following and accumulate views very fast, but they will be the exceptions rather than the norm. As I have mentioned earlier, being competitive is being human, and if chasing after views becomes a prominent part of being on Google+, then seeing very large numbers on others’ profiles and pages present a daunting task, perhaps too daunting as to stop someone from bothering with the platform.

In conclusion

I like Google+, and I spend a lot of time on it, probably too much, so I am loath to see any deterioration of the overall quality of the posts on Google+. This new metric looks unfortunately ill-thought-out and may have unintended consequences. I hope I will be proven wrong, that I have mightily overblown the potential issues and hazards mentioned in this piece, and I will be giving you a totally different answer in six months’ time.