When Google first debuted its “+1” button in March 2011, the critical reception was somewhat cool. With a stylization that was strikingly to Facebook's “Like” button, the “+1” feature had most SEO and internet marketing analysts labeling it a cheap rip-off, destined for the obscurity of Google's ill-fated Wave and Buzz projects – in large part due to the seemingly restrictive requirement that users have a public Google profile activated in order to participate.
However, the recent launch of Google's full “Plus” social network has many of these experts reconsidering their earlier stances. If recent reviews and early adopters can be believed, it's looking more and more likely Google's tight integration of social networking and search results – in addition to the inclusion of features that Facebook has long been lacking – could take off, leading to significant changes in the way people find and digest information online.
As you might expect, these changes could have a major impact on the traditional SEO industry. To see what's at stake and what could change in the future, let's start by looking at how people have interacted with search engines and their results in the past. From there, we can imagine what a fully-integrated social search network might look like, as well as how website owners can prepare for this new world of SEO.
Search Engine Interaction in the Past
For much of the last two decades, search engines and social networks have existed in isolation. Web visitors used specific web services (including forums, chat rooms, Friendster and other Facebook predecessors) in order to connect with friends, family members and web users with shared interests. Although some content recommendations may have been made in these settings, the process of seeking out particular bits of information was largely left to the search engines and the algorithms they utilized to provide results to search queries.
In this case – which largely persists today – users rely on the results generated by the search engines in order to identify the information that's most relevant to their search queries. In this environment, the only thing a website owner needs to do in order to be considered the most relevant result by the search engines is to comply with a set list of SEO criteria, including domain age, keyword density and other factors. Although the exact weight given to these factors has never been known for certain, it's safe to say that social recommendations haven't played a large role until now.
Certainly, some websites have attempted to bridge this gap before – most notably, “real person” search engines like Chacha.com, which touted live experts answering questions and making content recommendations. However, for a number of reasons, none of these human-powered search services have come close to earning the widespread recognition and trust given to the major search engines.
Google Plus: Connecting People and Search Results
Given the size of the Google search engine and the number of existing users, Google Plus and its corresponding “+1” button may be the web's best chance to integrate social recommendations with search results in the foreseeable future.
So what does search look like inside this newly integrated world of social SEO? For starters, instead of simply seeing the pieces of content that meet the most SEO criteria, Google searchers might first see recommendations for web articles that their contacts have rated, using the “+1” button. Alternatively, they might identify new articles through the Google Plus “Sparks” module, which promises to notify users of “stuff” (aka – web content) they might like.
As you might expect, SEO experts are more than a little peeved by this change in the structure of the Google SERPs. After all, how dare Google devalue the work that website owners have put into optimizing their websites by giving priority to content simply because a contact has “liked” it! To spend hours and hours implementing SEO best practices only to be knocked down the rankings by one person's recommendation certainly would be frustrating.
However, instead of getting mad, internet marketers and website owners would be wise to take this opportunity to expand their social presences and grow along with Google's new services. Google has made no secret of the fact that it's giving increased weight to websites with strong social profiles (including Facebook fans, Twitter followers and other social networking indicators), so there's really no better time to take advantage of these benefits than now, at the start of Google's foray into social networking.
How to Engage in the New World of Social SEO
Image: Anne Helmond
Step 1 – Actively engage. For a long time, the default advice has been that you need to have a Facebook page or Twitter profile – just to have one. But odds are, this won't be true for long. If Google is indicating a trend towards prioritizing links and sharing from social networking sites, it's reasonable to assume that, just as with standard websites, they'll be able to tell an active social profile from an inactive one (or, worse, a scam profile set up to manipulate the system).
So instead of simply setting up your social networking profiles, get more involved with them. Post regular content, share thoughts and actively communicate with followers by providing personalized advice and recommendations. It's a little more work, but it may ultimately be worth it if existing trends continue.
Step 2 – Publish good content. Don't publish articles just to publish articles – instead, share meaningful, interesting and exciting content with your readers. No one's going to “+1” the boring, keyword-driven article you posted to your website in order to satisfy some SEO requirement. In the world of social search, you're writing for actual people – not just the search engines – so it's important to focus on writing content that satisfies both.
Basically, if you can't say, “I'd absolutely share this article with a friend or colleague,” it's time to go back to the drawing board…
It's also important to keep in mind that we just saw a major smack down on sites that publish loads and loads of content as part of the recent “Farmer's Update.” While the specific reasoning behind which sites were slapped and why is still subject for speculation, it's worth keeping in mind that the sites that were targeted (for example, Ezine Articles and Hubpages) don't serve their readers as much as the people who were publishing on them.
Step 3 – Don't ignore traditional SEO. Although the debut of Google's Plus service certainly has the potential to change the way people interact with information online, it isn't likely to trigger an overnight revolution. Not everyone will sign on to use the service (even those who do may not adopt social-integrated search features for one reason or another), which means that a percentage of the population will continue to see the old, SEO-driven results pages.
So continue to target worthwhile keywords. Continue to make use of keyword rich title tags and quality backlinks from reputable sources. But don't be left behind as social search gains traction in marketplace. Users are becoming more and more engaged with social networking, so even if Google's Plus network doesn't take off, there will likely be another competitor on the horizon touting a similar integration. Take the time to implement solid social media strategies now in order to stay ahead of the curve on social SEO.