BAM! You’re a Node - Google+ Circles and The Rise of BrinRank

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 07/26/2012

Unless Google is going to fail, then Google+ is something that is going to gradually fill up around us, like water in a bathtub, until we are totally submerged and enjoying a nice hot bath. One of my favorite observers of the SEO industry, Barry Schwartz, noticed a new “Actively Discussed on Google+” link in the search results, and posted an article about it today. When searching on myself, even in Incognito mode, the listing of me on my website includes “In 256 circles”… big swelling ego, right? Well, I checked Matt Cutts, and he’s in 199,372 circles. Oh, what about Danny Sullivan? 1,496,755 circles. And Rand? 40K circles.

Okay, getting the point? There’s a new metric being exposed. And the searches on Matt and Danny have a nifty Knowledge Graph over on the right-hand side. Rand and myself don’t. I guess we’re not as noteworthy. But take note! What is this trying to tell you? Well, I’ve been saying for quite some time that PageRank has gotten crusty. The Google Web Spam team is in full-gear warning Webmasters through Webmaster Tools about suspicious inbound links that they ought to think about cleaning up. The Panda and Penguin algorithm, filter or threshold tweaks—whatever you want to call them—have blacked out large swaths of Internet that were specifically created to manipulate PageRank and generate some AdSense chump change.

So, Google has a multi-pronged approach to cleaning up search results, and to re-calibrate what it means to “be relevant”. And now, all of us early adopter Google+ users are actually organizing people into circles according to specialty, authority, writing topics, relationships, and the like. So Danny is in nearly 1.5 million circles that are surely named something with “SEO” in there. And then, Danny has a number of people he knows that have been organized into circles, and so on… so on through people-relationship in the right-now snapshot sense. But Google is also very sensitive to “deltas” or changes over time. PageRank works that way, and there is no reason to think BrinRank won’t work that way too.

It’s going to take some time for a critical mass to build, and Google will come under criticism for its Google+ ghost town every step of the way, right up until they pull some lever and change everything again. We’ve seen Bing’s latest “social integration” with Facebook data play out. I was pretty pumped over it at first, but feel its implications falling flat, due to a lackluster… something… a certain, intangible something that everyone’s trying to get right. PageRank lends itself to a nice clean Top-10 results view of the world. Social… it’s not so clear. Bing has gone with a left-hand of screen / right-hand of screen delineation, making natural results a short of “shopping cart” of products for social discussion. Google’s combing it right into the Top-10 area as if it were universal results, and decorating all the results up with interesting meta-data bits, or aggregate information (like circle membership) where they can.

The ace-in-the-whole for Google is how many people are going to love the switch from the “what you know” world of Google Top-10 to the “who you know” world of personal brand and influence. It’s an easier game to spew out opinions, pontificate, perform, be humorous, curate content… the list goes on… than it is to do the hard techie stuff to have a superior, competitive website on any given topic. Techies prospered for about 15 years of Google PageRank dominance, because going to Google and typing in a few keywords was the one unifying, consistent, reliable behavior of much of the world. For those who had what it took to insert their pages “for free” into that search result space, it was a gold rush. You could write your own paycheck through affiliate programs, and many of us did. Others became consultants. But there was always an overwhelmingly technical lean to it all, only with a contingency of “white hatters” repeating their mantra that quality wins out in the end, and don’t chase the Google details, but rather what you know they must reward over time, because there can be no other way.

Well, now instead of websites and pages being the master entity in the giant relevancy entity relationship diagram (ERD) in the sky, I believe people are being put in that coveted role. I was highly impressed by Google Circles, because they essentially tackled the problem that is typically labeled permissions or access control list (ACLs) in tech circles. Things are easy until you bring security, permissions and access levels into the picture. This is precisely what Google did with Circles, but they did it in a way that nobody knew they were actually pulling off something so difficult. Not only are they controlling their own permissions with messaging, but these Circles are themselves tagged with keywords (how you name them), and who puts whom in what circles creates one graph, and then how people “+1” content makes another graph.

Precisely as with PageRank before it, you could almost tear the websites and pages out of the picture, and just keep the links and their anchor text (that’s why it’s called Link Graph), and still have a good picture of the topography of the Internet, and what websites are important on what topics. When you do that, the existence of all those pages and sites is actually implicit (implied) and not explicit (expressly recorded), and having that particular view of the net topology is what made Google different. Without that, you’ve just got AltaVista and extremely volatile results excessively dependent on on-page content. Tweak a page, and results change. PageRank was the stabilizing force, and it has a 4-dimensional view in how the link graph grows and changes over time.

I’m going to call this thing BrinRank, because Brin’s first job is reportedly getting Google Social sorted out, in the face of the Facebook threat. With Facebook having signed-up a one seventh of the world’s population, Google needs brilliant strategy—preferably of the kind nobody really credits or takes seriously until critical mass is achieved, and it’s too late. It’s just may look like foundering, and be teased for being a ghost town. And whether they are successful or not will determine whether they were brilliant, or botched the biggest new opportunity since Google’s inception.

But the very way in which this Brin Graph is growing as determined by the Circle and +1 data—no matter how slow—is going to produce gold in terms of who is relevant for what topics. I just made a Circle for Brin called “Future Watch” and I’ll be putting the futurist visionaries in there, like the long-betting technology singularity guy, Ray Kurzweil, who has a profile but hasn’t done any posting yet, however 108 other people already have him in circles, presumably waiting. As with websites and pages, these follks don’t actually have to do anything like posting to be an important node in the Brin Graph. They only need to give-in, only once, to Google’s constant pestering to “upgrade” your account to Google Plus. BAM! You’re a node.

BAM! You’re a node… hmmmm. That may become the title of this blog post. This post really starts to point out what I’m trying to do with myself career-wise in light of all this potential change. I remember when I was considering getting into the field of SEO, and I even wrote it off the first time, because I wasn’t the full-time webmaster yet at the company I was at, and intuitively knew I wouldn’t be able to do the things necessary to really be effective in search. I needed TOTAL control over the website to do SEO, and I had that at Prophet 21 where I left to be a full-time website. It took 2 company acquisitions: Prophet 21 by Activant, then Activant by Epicor—and the better part of 10 years—to wipe out my work there and lose page 1, 1st position on the term “distribution software”.

I finally gave into becoming an SEO while I was a webmaster at Prophet 21, and learned the XSLT data transformation trick so that I could slice and dice websites and reshape them into anything I needed: lots of short pages, a reasonable number of medium-length pages, or very few long pages. I was outputting static websites by executing very complex queries that shaped it into the ideal shapes for SEO, right down to how pages linked to each other to control site hierarchy and preserve long-term never-breaking good URL schemas.

I LOVED the XSLT transformation process, but it never took off for SEO, and was too outside the box for most folks. But techie stuff like that WAS seo to me, and I could work miracles without having to become a celebrity or open my doors and interact with too many people—who happened to be suburban “in-the-boxers”. After Prophet 21, I switched to Scala to earn .05% of gross international revenues on digital signage sales. It was the perfect business for SEO. Nobody knew what to call it or what to research, so I wrote prolifically and targeted everything with a series of ideally linked pages targeting just that one concept per page. It directly brought in NEC as a partner, and opened the door to the Asian market for them.

I was a one-person tech powerhouse working inexplicable miracles behind closed doors. Only two people: Steve Elsner and Adam Edwards, understood what I was doing in those days. One showed me the way to the tech magic, and the other showed me the way to New York City. In New York, I went to work for a public relations company as a vice president, and in that capacity I programmed HitTail—a tiny extraction from a larger system I had been developing over the years—a sort of Ruby on Rails, but for VBScript. Talk about betting on the wrong horse. I really didn’t have a broad enough perspective on technology in those days. I followed the path of least resistance and got caught in a vendor-trap like so many other people.

But I was now fully re-purposed to SEO. For the first time in my life, I was not a production person generalist, or the Webmaster responsible for the site as a whole, or a vice president responsible for budgets and people. I was now a pure SEO-guy who had developed a successful Web 2.0 product that survived for over a half-decade, and is now having new life breathed into it by the new owner, because I went the salaried “working-for-the-man” route with a New York digital marketing firm, now that I have a wife and kid. I needed that sort of stability, and have shied away from startups, or starting up myself.

Well now, things are different. I am valuable to my employer precisely because I am the real-deal. I am valuable because I am that guy capable of going off behind closed doors, and coming out with something brilliant, even by the standards of our Fortune 1000-level clients. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I seem to be able to connect dots that few others see, or at least have the know-how and initiative to act upon. None have made me rich so far, like Instagram or anything. But one turned Scala around to profitability, and another is helping small businesses around the world effectively target good converting long-tail traffic. My latest, 360iTiger, is still in its early stages, but it turns Google Docs (or really any API-driven spreadsheet) into an interactive data-collecting work-session that enables average spreadsheet users to have high-tech super-powers normally reserved for the techies who enjoy holding the keys to the kingdom and lording over people slightly less technical than themselves.

In fact, that is the genesis of my latest endeavors, and take on my field of SEO, and where things are going with BrinRank. So, here’s the new manifesto: You gotta be someone to have influence. Old fashioned PageRank will still matter, but it will gradually be replaced and marginalized, because people are more interesting and lasting than most (but not all) companies. Because people are more interesting and tangible, and there is a knowable number of them on the planet at any given moment, people are the gold standard of currency in the information age. That means what you bring to the table as a unique individual with something to offer in this world is tied directly back to you—and not some walled-garden gatekeeper.

I feel this way because social links via the Like button, +1 and Tweets are much easier to create than the invisible-hand links of webmasters who control big, influential sites. They will be made a lot, by forever more people, over increasingly longer time-periods, from ever-more devices. Critical mass WILL be achieved here, and the amount and quality of the data will just inherently eclipse PageRank. This is especially true, because it’s not just the “votes”, but it’s also the sorting of people into Circles and tagging them by the way the Circles are named. Twitter Lists work similarly, as do Facebook Friend Lists. You’re getting tagged and sorted all over the place. It’s eventually going to matter.

So, who knows the precise details of how it’s all going to play out. And does it really even matter? But be sure that you’ve gotta start building that personal presence. And its not by immersing yourself into social media for its own sake and become yet another “me too” pontificating parroting voice. You have to have something going on in your life. You’ve got to be interesting. You’ve got to have that something to contribute that nobody else does, or at least they don’t package it as good.

In other words, I’m being forced to re-invent myself from a “what you know guy” who could hardly care less about who you are and whether you know me, into someone who has to care. The fifteen year stretch of “what you know people” becoming curiously powerful is winding down, so that the “who you know” people can reassert their dominance, as they always do… especially as they themselves move from one the former category to the later.