Yesterday, I had a rather heated debate with a fellow online marketer, on one of the most popular topics within SEO at the moment: Namely, the impact of Google+ (and its +1s) on search rankings - or lack of, to be more precise.
Let me start this post with a couple of caveats. First up, whilst I'm very much on record as not being a fan of Google+ (I *may* have called it 'The King's New Clothes of Social Networking' a few times) my opinion about the topic in question is entirely unrelated to this.
I may not be a fan, but I certainly recognise the impressive offering Google have developed in the fight against Facebook. I have a Google Plus profile, I encourage our clients to use it too and I pop on there at least once a week to see what's what.
Secondly, and this one goes without saying I suppose, this post is based on my opinion. But frankly, most of the opposing arguments are also based on opinion. Search all you might ('scuse the pun), there is almost no plausible or credible proof that +1s have any impact on SERPs or search visibility.
Whilst I firmly believe that, I should also point out what I am not saying.
- I'm not saying brands (or webmasters) shouldn't have Google+ profiles. Far from it, as the branded-search coverage alone makes this worthwhile. After all, who doesn't want a little extra Google real estate when people search your brand?
- I'm also not saying that Google doesn't factor 'social signals' in to search rankings. Far from it, as I've long been an advocate of the integration of Search and Social, and can give you plenty of examples of when the two have worked together to give a better result.
- Finally, I'm not saying that you shouldn't keep a close eye on how Google develops Plus or +1s in the algorithm in future.
What I am saying is that you shouldn't let passionate or argumentative SEOs convince you that Google+ should be a key part of your site's strategy. Sadly, this is exactly what I see happening far too much.
As a blogger myself (I'm one of the dreaded 'dad bloggers' in my spare time!) I'm a member of a number of blogging communities, where my fellow bloggers and I can discuss our plans, opinions, tactics and ideas.
Not a week goes by without one of them reporting that they've been told (or they've read) that Google+ needs to be central to their strategy, sometimes even going as so far as to say they shouldn't bother with any other social networks in their social strategy.
Upon further research, very few of these blog posts, slideshares or stories ever actually include any evidence or facts. They're essentially hearsay and opinion painted as fact. Get into an argument with one of these passionate writers and you'll be told things like "Everyone says it, it must be true" and "Prove it doesn't make a difference!"
The second of these comebacks is baffling to me. As somebody saying it doesn't have an impact, surely the impetus isn't on me to provide proof. That would be like asking an Atheist to 'prove' that there isn't a God: can you ever truly prove something doesn't exist? No, you can't.
As a hardy sceptic (and a casual atheist) I take the same view of Google+ as I do to God: prove it to me categorically and I'll take you seriously.
Of course, I wouldn't be any better than them if I didn't provide any proof of my own. And what better proof than Google itself?
The evidence against...
Despite the fact that Google probably benefits massively from this argument (after all, marketers are telling anybody who will listen that they need to use Google+ more, what isn't there to love for Google in that?) it has actually been very open and honest about this.
Just last week at PubCon in Las Vegas, Matt Cutts explained that social signals like Likes, retweets and +1s will have no short-term impact on your search performance. They won't help you rank better, in other words.
While he did say that a long-term haul of these social signals 'could' have an impact on your influence, the fact remains that Cutts clearly stated social signals from Facebook and Twitter would be just as likely to have this affect as +1s.
In other words, Google+ doesn't need to be the central hub of your social strategy.
There have also been a number of third party studies looking into the effects of Google Plus on rankings.
- This one, by Cyrus Shepard on Moz.com, finds a strong correlation between +1s and rankings though, as the author says, it doesn't constitute proof in itself.
- Also, this study reported on Search Engine Land can find no evidence that G+ means better rankings.
Google Plus isn't big enough to use as a ranking signal
And let's face it, in all honesty, how could Google hope to maintain a respectable and competitive search engine if it took data from what is undoubtedly still a very small social network?
Google claims to have almost 250m 'active' users - compared to Facebook's 1bn+ (though how it defines 'active' is clearly very debatable), but even the most anecdotal of evidence will tell you that Google+ is used by only a small proportion of users.
Take my own Facebook friend list for instance. I've spent some time working out how many of my 700+ Facebook friends are also active on Google+. By basic logic alone, you'd assume it must be at least 150 - if not 200.
But how many of them are actually active on Google+? My best estimate said no more than 20, and I'm being quite generous in my definition of active there.
The simple truth is, very few people are using Google+ in any great capacity at the moment, so Google would be utterly bonkers to make data from it anything but the tiniest, inconsequential factor in search rankings.
And if anybody tells you otherwise, ask them for proof. And I mean proper proof - not signed-in, short-term boosts - I mean long-term, available to all ranking changes which will have actual impacts on the average webmaster.