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There have been some great posts already written on this topic after Google’s announcement of its new search facility earlier this month. Although the change was only implemented on Google.com (the US version of the homepage) there is no doubt Google has ambitions for this to be rolled out globally in the coming weeks/months. Anyone can access the US version by visiting google.com, and then clicking on the ‘Go to Google.com’ at the bottom right of the screen.
For me, two standout posts from the multitude that have been written on this subject in the past two weeks are from Kelvin Newman (Site Visibility) and Danny Sullivan (Search Engine Land). Kelvin outlines on Econsultancy how some of the tactics used in search could change how SEOs work day-to-day. While Danny joins in the discussion with a good post showing all the features and highlighting some potential issues with a follow up post comparing Search+ to "Miracle on 34th Street."
Some of these really well-written posts focus on the lack of Twitter and Facebook support. Most slam the feature as Google using its biggest trump card of search to advertise what many have regarded as an attempt to ignite its struggling social media efforts, while others pick up on anti-trust issues. In my opinion, I believe this is a genuine attempt by Google to use the maximum amount of available data to create the most relevant search results. This is the element of the recent change that I will focus on here.
The dust has still not settled on this – but for now it’s definitely a major change in the way the algorithm works. Panda last year changed the way pages are classified in the SERPs, while Search+ offers heightened personalisation to each individual’s search results. It will certainly make it a lot harder in the long-term for SEOs to say what 'positions' a company’s website is achieving. Although positional metrics are in 99% of the reporting by SEOs, any digital analyst will tell you that rankings are not the most important metrics to assess. Position will be an estimation of where a brand sits in the 'non Search+ world,' what that brand then does socially can dramatically affect its overall presence in the Search+ universe.
The key element behind Search+ is Google+ at the moment. G+ may have 100 million current 'users,' but its true impact within the web community is yet to be fully defined. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have yet to be connected to Search+; Twitter even came out and claimed that Search+ is bad for search.
Until Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have been integrated with Search+, it won’t have dealt with the full end-to-end social sphere. With G+, Google has started on the road it needs to pursue, but it now needs to continue to integrate all and any data sources it can access. Search+ allows the SERPs to be defined by the user, not only by keyword but by their interactions and connections in their digital life.
Google – it’s not what you know, but who you know
As an educational tool, and at its simplest level, there are three ways people use search.
What I know, I know
I make a search, I know where I want to go, I know who I consider the authoritative person/company to be, and I know roughly what kind of website, if not specifically the site I want to visit to get that information.
Example: I want to see the best metrics to use for a small business. I know I have experts on this in my G+ so I type a very generic ‘small business metrics’ into Google. I get results with the top three talking about business success metrics. With Search+ I get the following results in position two and position four from two people whose opinions on the industry I respect.
The issue with this is the lack of expansion of knowledge. It disables the potential to learn by getting connected peoples’ opinions on a subject as the preference. By using Search+ my search results are driven by people I already know. Where I have specialised my circles around the subject that I know, I might have less visibility of other people/companies that are being revolutionary, unless a contact of mine has highlighted them to me.
What I know, I don’t know
In this instance, I’m searching for something I know I don’t know much about. However I might know of someone who is aware of the topic. This is where Search+ comes into its own, connecting me with potentially more relevant content, which has been suggested by someone I am connected to.
Example: If I wanted to create a new business I know the terminology is ‘start-ups’ so I type that into Google. What I get is a plethora of G+ data, 130 personal results, links to people I should follow, and a post from Will Reynolds, who I follow, due to his SEO and marketing knowledge linking to an article on “12 rules for start-ups.”
The concern is, that I am again funnelled into a world where my connections effectively guide my learning on a given search topic. The assumption is that your G+ circles represent you as a person; therefore this is used to merge the SERPs and my highly-tuned G+ Search+ world. But in reality my circles also include Xbox fan clubs and photographers whose work I admire, as well as a multitude of people I’ve crossed paths with online but who I am unlikely to connect with on a regular basis. Content produced by any of these people may filter into my search results, but is that always going to be relevant to me based on my search term?
What I don’t know, I don’t know
This is the minor issue I currently have with Search+. If I don’t know anything about a subject and I have not come across anyone who I think knows a lot about that topic, Search+ could end up pointing me to something which is less useful than the default non-Search+ results. The good news is I can turn Search+ off, however I don’t know before visiting a number of sites if people I am connecting to are knowledgeable in this subject or not, and again, it’s highly opinionated and limiting for me.
What about business
We could easily spend all day discussing the effect of Search+ on how SEO works for different sectors, as well as its dependence on the social and content strategy for each business. For now, I'm going to cover just one small element of how this could impact businesses.
(website and terms picked at random - I have no affiliation to mentioned sites)
Search+ is increasing the potential impact of a social strategy for B2C businesses. Having the social 'like, +1, tweet' buttons on each individual product page is very important for product and brand recognition in search, as is having a good, engaging blog/social presence.
If you are proactive in your sector you will create a community presence and therefore gather followers. Search+ will pick up on these followers and potentially inflate your positions within Google, based on the value of connections within your community. Potential customers need to be friends with people who have interacted with you on social media, so the more you engage, the more chance you have of being found.
Example: I searched for ‘cheap hot water bottles’ and the result looked like this:
For the experiment I decided to use the third link in the SERPs for chemistdirect. My Google+ friends (James, John, Alana, Oli, Heather and Gary – with thanks) then wrote posts on their G+ pages (only shared with me), saying how good that product was, including a link to the specific product URL for chemistdirect. These posts featured different copy but all contained the same link to that specific product. Heather’s post, which said 'check out this cheap hot water bottle,' was highlighted when I again searched 'cheap hot water bottles.' However the linked-to URL remained in third position.
Hold on one second....
For the term 'hot water bottle', a much more generic term, and therefore difficult to improve ranking for, chemistdirect was in position #282 before the experiment, but now appears in position #2 due to my friend James’s recommendation. It also appears in position #6 due to Heather’s post, this time with a large picture of the product too. This is giving the site exposure on what is quite a generic keyword, which using normal SEO techniques would be quite hard to achieve, let alone instantaneously. (Screenshot below is from position two down)
One of the ways Search+ may work in the future is that we may use pre-defined circles to help us research. Working for an agency, I quite often look at a market and analyse the personas of a client’s customers, for example, what are their interests and who do they like?
An example of this is a client that sells ski and snowboard equipment. I can go onto Google+ and find a pre-defined and already set up circle with people interested in snowboarding or skiing and then add this as a new circle. My Search+ now has information for all those people in that circle, who are now integrated into the SERPs and can be used to help filter more relevant and potential customer-tuned results.
Example: I wanted to find out when the ski season started and where is considered by the community as a good place to go.
Typing in 'ski season' I got the following:
Scrolling down I see a post from Karmal Singh, which gives me a link to Google Street View. It shows the slopes using Google's Street View technology, which is perfect as it gives me a view of what locations look like, as well as links to information about the ski season’s length. I've tried to find this link in my search results but having made it to page ten, there is still no link. Without Search+ it seems unlikely I would have found it. In comparison, after my G+ profile was changed to include the circle focused on skiing and snowboarding this was on the first page of results.
This is proactively using Search+ to not only research the current community but enable me to ‘see’ the topic through their eyes, with search results directly reflecting their online activity in this area. What I’ll get is the section of the customer base that are most socially active. I can then use this knowledge to develop a social strategy and look at creating some brand social evangelists within that subsection.
The more data used in Google Search Plus Your World, the more impact Search+ will have. But there is also an increasing danger of search results becoming highly saturated with recommendations, making it difficult to learn something new from the results.
Google’s mission statement is to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” To me, right now, what Google has started doing is organising the information that I am connected to as a priority, instead of ranking it based on relevance and authority; arguably not always presenting the most useful results for my search.
Perhaps Google should be thinking up a new mission statement...