Why Klout Deal Is Not The Answer To Microsoft's Social Search Strategy

As Microsoft seeks to better quantify the influence of its social search, the company has partnered with the controversial online-influence ranking service Klout as a first step. It looks to be no more than a marriage of convenience.

Microsoft said Thursday that it would make an investment in the company, and that Klout scores would begin showing up in the “sidebar” of its Bing social search. On Klout, meanwhile, experts who appear in Bing’s “People Who Know” section of the sidebar will be recognized on Klout, noted Joe Fernandez, the chief executive of Klout, in a blog post. People who have a Wikipedia account associated with their Klout profile will also be rewarded for the frequency that they are searched on Bing.

“What’s interesting about our work on the Klout service is that for the 1st time Bing is an outbound signal for influence,” said Derrick Connell, Corporate Vice President, Bing, in a blog post. “Search as a new outbound signal is an interesting new development in the way we think about big data and how it can add value to lots of the other services we use each day.”

While that sums up Bing’s goal, Microsoft could have done a better job explaining it in plain English. Here’s what it means for both companies.

What’s Klout?

“Klout began with a very simple idea: Everyone has influence - the ability to drive action,” according to the company’s website.  From a charitable perspective, Klout measures a person's ability to drive conversations online in a variety of social media: on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ as well as smaller social networks like LinkedIn and YouTube. Your “Klout” - a numerical score - is compiled from the number of times you’re mentioned, for example, or how many times a post is commented upon, liked or retweeted.

That’s the key metric for Microsoft. Klout’s single numerical score assigns a level of influence to your social presence, giving some indication of their opinion’s worth online. Klout also allows others to give you “Klout,” or “+K,” the company’s currency of social influence, in a given topic. For example, I’m an influencer on branding, games and music. 

In May, Microsoft added the “sidebar” to its Bing search engine, assigning influence from the friends of the Bing user. The sidebar also uses Facebook to solicit requests from users on which restaurant a user should eat at during a stopover in Seattle, for example, and uses geolocation data, published opinions, and automated, personal requests from those friends to get personalized results. Now, the Klout score will be one of the main signals of which friends’ opinions Bing will try to display.

My Problems With Klout

And that’s where the problems start.

Because, first, most observers agree that Klout simply isn't a reliable indicator. For example, it's pretty wrong about me. I’m not an influencer of music. I don’t even listen to music. Really, at all. I find it distracting while I’m working, and during down periods I read, watch TV or movies, and play with my kids. I usually tune into sports radio in the car, only occasionally listening to the local alt-hippie-rock station. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote anything with a specific music focus, besides a few tweets on “Gangnam Style.” And yet, here I am.

Earlier this year, I was considered an influencer of the NBA basketball playoffs. I’m 6-foot-2, deathly white, with the hops of an oyster. Yes, I know that a pick and roll isn’t referring to a lobster feed, but that’s about it.

Second, there’s the elitism factor. Many have done a better job than I could explaining the problems with Klout, which assigns perks to the “one percent” of the Web. But it boils down to the fact those with the most presence online - and the highest Klout scores - aren’t necessarily the most authoritative sources of information.  

Third, adding Klout because someone searched on Bing for a Wikipedia article about them, as Klout indicated it would do, probably isn’t an indication that their opinion carries weight. It might make them interesting, true, but not necessarily an expert. It’s the “Joe the Plumber” problem.

What Is Influence, Anyway?

Microsoft continues to sail into uncharted waters with its new social search. I’ve argued before that the best use of social search is cultivating an engaged, opinionated network of friends, and mining their published opinions. In one sense, this is exactly what the Bing-Klout partnership has set out to do. 

Way back in 1997, Laura Garton and Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto, along with Caroline Haythornthwaite of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published a frequently cited paper that attempted to define how infuence is measured by social networks. The trio concluded that four metrics determine the strength of a social connection:

  1. Relations, or sharing content (which can be emotional support, computer files, or money) between two people
  2. Ties, or the number of different types of content shared (such as a professional relationship as well as a common love of baseball)
  3. Multiplexity, which assigns increased strength to how many ties one has
  4. Social composition, such as the relationship between a superior and an underling, or two peers.

Klout essentially measures all of these characteristics already. If a friend and I are both reporters, that makes us colleagues. If he likes baseball as well, and his child is the same age as my own, that forges an even closer tie.

Integrating one's search presence into this takes the concept of social influence in a new direction. Bill Gates is indeed a popular search term. But so is Kim Kardashian. Again, the Joe the Plumber problem rears its head.

There Are Other Solutions

There are other social-network-ranking options. PeerIndex is one of the more popular choices, and companies like PostRank and HowSociable have also tried to crack the problem.

"For the gold standard in influence measurement, the best alternative to Klout is citation analysis, where you look for authority indexes based on the totality of Web citations, that is, links or textual references to a source within a defined topical context," Mark Rogers, the founder of Sentinel Projects, one alternative to Klout, wrote in 2011. "This process punishes people who are looking for indiscriminate followers and citations. It ignores activity, rewarding being talked-about over talking.

"The thing is, measuring influence in such a topic-specific way is hard and bespoke," Rogers added. "There are lots of firms trying to do this - Traackr and mBlast have already been mentioned.  We're another one. These bespoke options require human iteration and heavy computer processing to provide network measures (influence, but also popularity, hubness and betweenness) that are much more nuanced than what you'll get from self-service influence tools like Klout."

The problem that Bing and Klout face is how to appropriately value the Web's opinions, and also how to assign weight to those who don’t use the Web as their primary communication medium. In some ways, the partnership between Klout and Microsoft is an obvious first step to addressing these issues, but that’s all it is - the first step on a long road.