I have opined more than once about the necessity that Google improve its search results. The problem is that machines can't read a page and decide its relative value to someone searching for keywords (or semantic equivalents) that appear on that page. Maybe someday artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where that is possible, but we seem to be a good many years away from that.
So, for now, a search engine has to grope around in the dark, feeling for indications of quality. Google (and every other search engine) looks at multiple factors. Those factors include both on and off page items and also give weight to the reputation of the site as a whole, the age of the page, what else the searcher was looking for or visiting recently and who knows what else.
One of the big factors was links. That is, if a hundred other people created links to your page, search engines would give your page more weight than a page that had fewer or no links. Unfortunately, that factor is subject to abuse: it is trivial to create fake websites that exist for no other purpose than to link back to some other site. Trading of links is also common, with some schemes being quite complicated in order to avoid detection by Google.
Detection? Yes, Google (and the other search engines) are aware of these deceptions and do try to ferret them out. They can never be completely successful, but they do try.
It seems likely that the new +1 buttons will be the latest addition to Google's page quality tests. You have probably noticed these buttons beside Google search results and you'll also see them on pages like this one. Clicking that tells Google "I like this page. I think it is valuable to other people".
In that respect, it's no different that Facebook "Like", a Dig or a StumbleUpon recommendation. But don't be fooled by that resemblance: +1's are much, much more than that.
The secret sauce to +1's is "reputation". Although the thought may give you the creepy crawlies, Google knows a tremendous amount about people who use its services. They know the web properties where I use Analytics, Adsense or Webmaster Tools. They know who is in my Google+ circles and who has added me to their circles. They know about my Twitter, Buzz and Youtube activity as well as my Feedburner RSS feeds and other less obvious things. Because Google Checkout is used by some who buy my books, they have a partial view of that, too.
By the way, it MIGHT be a bad idea to +1 your own pages. It may mean nothing, but it is easy to imagine that Google could see that negatively.
The reputation of a particular page is obviously enhanced by multiple +1 activity. What may be less obvious is that even a small amount of the right kind of activity might turn out to be very valuable. For example, Google probably gives me a strong reputation score on the subject of SCO Unix. Other people who read here also may score well for that subject. If I +1 some page (at someone else's site) on that subject, that obviously has value, but that value may multiply exponentially if other people with strong "Sco Unix" ties do the same. In other words, our +1's may have context value in addition to simple additive value.
The new Google Plus may be another strong driving factor in reputations. I don't know how hard it will be to fake a Google Plus account, but faking interaction with other Plusers would seem to be nearly impossible.
As I write this, I've been using G+ for a few days. I'm interacting with people, clicking Plus-1 on their posts, sharing stuff I like and of course they are doing the same with my posts. We are all building reputation - Google is learning that we are real people and that other real people find some of our content valuable. I don't see how you can fake that.
Google just introduced "badges" for people who read Google News articles. This is also probably about reputation. I might gain a strong reputation for "Google" because I write posts about Google that other people share and plus one. If I also read a lot about "Google", that probably means I know more than someone who doesn't. So if I then "+1" YOUR page about Google, my vote is worth more than votes by people who never read or write much about Google. Get enough votes from other Google "experts" and you get a SERP boost..
SEO manipulators beware
That "reputation" value is what may make life difficult for would be SEO manipulators. They may be able to create multiple Google accounts, but it should be far more difficult to build a strong reputation in specific areas for very many of them. This factor could also be what cements Google's position as the king of search for some time to come: Microsoft absolutely cannot compete with Google reputation.
If this all works out as it seems it must, Google will once again be the absolute master of search and your search results should be less cluttered with manipulated results.
However, Facebook is in a slightly better position. They have two things going against them, though: a distaste by many because of sloppy privacy policies and a complete disregard for any method of monetizing its users content. Google+ (which is littered with +1 buttons) doesn't offer monetization either, but its easy to imagine that they could incorporate Adsense. They definitely already have better privacy controls and far better and easier choices as to who sees what you post.
Twitter? While more than one person has pointed out that the 140 character limitation can be preferred over Google+', Twitter may be doomed by this. Google+ doesn't yet have concepts of hashtags, but that (and the 140 character limit) is just about all that distinguishes Twitter from G+. How hard would it be for Google to add hashtags? Obviously, that's trivial.
What's in it for you?
Better search results. Not now; it will take time for Google to gather enough data to apply these recommendations intelligently.
More search referrals. Assuming that your pages get recommended, either in great volume or by the "right" people, of course.
I see this as an extremely positive development. I do worry about how much power and knowledge Google has, though. I've said before that I believe Google's founders are moral people who honestly are trying to "Do no evil". Unfortunately, not all of their employees may have as strong a moral compass, so the potential for real abuse and real harm definitely exists. I have no idea how to prevent that, but vigilance is certainly indicated.
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