Google Explores Utilizing +1s as Search Rank Factor

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Google’s almighty search algorithm is one of our generation’s most heavily guarded secrets. Like the recipe for Coke before it, it’s been instrumental to the company’s ongoing success, even in the wake of a growing number of competitors like Bing or a favorite around here, Duck Duck Go.

That’s not to say that the algorithm’s perfect. It was only in February that Google famously tweaked it in efforts to weed out content farms, with the goal “to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible,” as they wrote in a blog post. It’s this idea of “relevance” that’s been the gold at the end of Google’s rainbow.

(MORE: Google+ Adds “Ignore” Feature)

In an email with Wired‘s Ryan Singel, a Google representative basically confirmed what many—including us—have already suspected: The company will explore using +1s as a way to assign social relevance to search results.

“Google will study the clicks on +1 buttons as a signal that influences the ranking and appearance of websites in search results,” writes a Google spokesperson in an email with Wired. “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.”

Google currently uses 200 different factors to determine a website’s rank in search, and the algorithm is constantly being tinkered with.

The social implications of +1s wouldn’t be the first time that Google tried systematizing user feedback to augment search (remember Buzz?), but the inability to assign social relevance has been a thorn in Google’s side for some time. As Singel points out, it’s Facebook’s refusal to share its data coupled with Google’s inability to renew a deal with Twitter that caused them to create their own social network, Google+.

Many speculate that culling from +1s as a search factor is something easily exploitable by black hat SEO marketers. A few websites, in fact, are offering to sell +1s with pretty sophisticated workarounds in order to avoid detection.

Still, +1s represent a treasure trove of information for Google as the company continues to refine its algorithm. The question, really, isn’t if they’ll use +1s to influence search rankings, it’s when.

The tricky part—especially considering the potential exploits that many are already cautious of—will be how.

LIST: A Brief History of Google’s Social Networking Flops

Chris Gayomali is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @chrigz, on Facebook, or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.