It was about time we had another buzzphrase to obsess over, and Google Search, plus Your World (so concise) fits the bill perfectly.
Here is a social search algorithm update that ticks so many boxes it's like SEO bingo heaven.
I’ve read a lot of articles (some brilliant, one of which is Russell McAthy over on Freshegg, and some have no substance) about the implications of Search+.
After I let all the info sink in, a penny dropped. The conclusion I came to was that Search+ will inevitably be a new source of link spam...
By that I mean there will be savvy marketers who focus on quality but a significant number of people, either through lack of understanding or deliberate design, who will seek to get as many +1s from as many people as possible - regardless of why or who.
The reality of this industry is that we love a bandwagon to jump on. I think for some it's fuelled by the desire to be innovative and get ahead of competition, while for others it's the lovechild of attention span deficit and the inability to focus on quality delivery when there's a new toy to chew.
For some still it's laziness that drives actions targeting quantity over quality.
This blog sets out why I think initially we might get a sense of déjà vu, with low quality link building via +1 recommendations before Google works out how social fits properly into its search algorithm.
First, a précis for those who have not yet digested the arrival of Search+
Skip to the next section if you already know this...
Google announced a major update to its search algorithm in January this year (currently only on Google.com but roll-out to other domains is imminent) and inconveniently gave it a stupidly long moniker: Google Search, plus Your World.
The basic premise is that content posted on Google+ can help increase the visibility of this content in Google search results as follows:
- Relevant Google+ posts (including photos) from your friends will appear in your personal results on Google.
- Popular Google+ profiles will appear in search results.
- When you type in a name in the Google search bar, matching Google+ profiles appear in predictive searches.
The screenshot below provides an example of two above for the search term "web analytics".
How can Search+ benefit brands for online search?
There are several areas in which brands can benefit from a Google+ presence:
- Their Google+ profile can be displayed in search results, increasing the number of potential links appearing in search results - important for brand term coverage.
- When the Google+ profile is displayed in SERPs, a button to 'Add to circles' also appears helping encourage new friends.
- Their employees' Google+ profiles can appear in search results and each profile can link to the brand.
- Google+ posts can be surfaced to people in the brand's and employees' circles, increasing impact of content.
You don't need to be highly active on Google+ to get a brand search uplift.
A good example is A4e, a social purpose company, whose Google+ profile link appears above the fold on page one in Google.com and Google.co.uk for brand search terms (thanks to Dan Barker for the example). Only 14 people have added A4e to their circles.
Currently this only works for people in your circles, so if a brand is an avid poster of content, it would need to build an army of followers to ensure that this content has an influence in search results.
H&M is a good example of this (see Vikki Chowney's earlier post on its Google+ brand page). The one caveat is Google+ pages appearing for brand related searches - you don't have to be a friend to see that.
However, I wouldn't be surprised if Google decides to experiment with Google+ content and display posts to a wider audience, so that you can see a brand's Google+ contenteven if you're not following them if Google thinks it's relevant to your search.
Where is the link spam risk?
Spam risk 1: asking customers to +1 everything
I'm already hearing conversations where client teams are talking about getting as many people as possible to +1 their webpages in SERPs. Perhaps I might have brought this up in conversation (shameless).
Not a targeted customer communication plan (I certainly didn't suggest that!) to encourage people to +1 the content they are most interested in, or indeed to educate them on what Google+ and +1 means to their relationship with the brand, but a scatter gun approach to +1'ing everything in site.
Now I'm not saying that encouraging customers to +1 and share your content is spam by default. It's not. But if you simply tell people to +1 all your pages, it's untargeted.
The sensible approach is to integrate +1'ing with your content and SEO strategy and other marketing plans, so the pages of most value and relevance are the ones you ask people to rate.
Spam risk 2: paying influencers to +1 pages
Tapping into social influencers is an important part of search and social media. This is especially true for respected bloggers - blogger outreach is an integral part of social link building.
In a niche area where there are a few respected voices who influence thousands of listeners, there is a clear benefit to having those influencers give you a +1. Getting an influencer to +1 your webpages because they genuinely believe in them is great but I can see some marketers hiving off a bit of the budget to tap up suggestible influencers for trigger happy +1s.
Spam risk 3: getting everyone you know to +1 everything
A friendly nudge here and there could persuade friends & family to give some +1 love. This might be more relevant for small business owners and digital start-ups that want to push their search presence without the heritage of a brand and strong domain reputation to fall back on.
As more people join Google+, this means the +1 will have a spiralling effect.
Spam risk 4: getting employees to +1 everything
Consider a large organisation with hundreds/thousands of employees. That's a large audience who could click +1 every time they see their company's URL appearing in SERPs.
Spam risk 5: agencies +1'ing clients' webpages
Not wanting to remove us consultants + agencies from the responsibility, I'm also predicting some service providers either influencing client teams to allow them to do this as a 'value add' service, or colluding with client-side marketers who approach them with the idea. If this doesn't happen at all, I'll eat my hat. I don't have one but I will buy one specifically for this purpose.
Where is this most likely to happen? In low-grade SEO agencies who really don't get sustainable SEO built on quality principles but instead churn out what's easiest to show progress e.g. "hey look, we've got 50 +1s for your homepage!!!"
What might be the long-term repercussions?
Shifting marketing focus to Google+ and +1
The invasion of Google+ and paid-for media is pushing genuine organic results further down the page in SERPs.
Google has always been market leader because it put the emphasis on quality and relevance of results to deliver customer service. However, there is a growing consensus that the infusion of Google+ links is actually threatening the quality of true organic non-paid for search results.
It is possible that this move, along with others around paid media, will diminish the impact of getting high organic ranking in SERPs. Let's face it, if months of studious link building, social conversation and content building get you into position 3 for your dream search query, but this result actually appears below the fold for a significant % of the target audience, how happy will you be? Of course you would wait for the data to give you the facts but as a web owner, I'd be a little bit vexed.
Look at the screenshot below, how many organic results can you see above the fold? (based on laptop view and I'm seeing more and more traffic from laptop resolutions to my clients' websites):
If standard organic listings are appearing below the fold and Search+ above the fold, how will that impact marketing decisions?
It's not stretching the imagination too far to expect some digital marketers to focus more effort on building a Google+ presence and encouraging customers to get busy with the +1 button.
Perhaps traditional link building will lose some of its love. Perhaps web owners will want to incentivise people to +1. Perhaps even to sponsor +1s. Perhaps even to pay influencers to +1.
Searching without being logged-in to your Google account?
Given that you only get to see these results when you're logged-in to your Google account (at the moment), might we see people searching without being logged-in?
I'm not 100% convinced as most people I know have no clue what Google+ or Search+ are, so the thought process around logging-in or out doesn't exist. Currently that mindset applies only to e-commerce peeps.
Perhaps that could migrate into the wider search audience but I think it applies to a small minority of avid searchers. My parents will definitely not think about their Google log-in status when searching. I doubt they are alone.
Google getting tough with sponsored +1s
They've already shown tough love with sponsored links (even punishing themselves - Chrome team getting a 60 day slap for paid links), so to protect the integrity of the Google+ network and consolidate it's competitive position with other social search content, it's feasible that Google will evolve its policing of Search+ to slap down people who are blatantly paying for +1s to try and beef up search presence.
What do other people think?
I've been discussing this with a few e-commerce legends whose opinions on SEO I respect (see how I've set you up now gents). I thought it would be interesting to include their current take on the Google Search + world of mystery.
GSearch+ currently has the requirement of connectivity between the user and the person making the recommendation. Although the +1 gaming will have a small scale effect it wont effect the overall marketplace significantly. Facebook likes, although no direct link back to the business website, have been gamed in the past to promote a customer satisfaction and approval rating. +1's currently don't have as much standing in the community for gratification, however with the potential to effect positioning there is a better potential ROI to gaming.
We don't know where Google will go with its venture into social integration into search and how much of an impact +1 will have on the overall non-social SERP algorithm. What we can assume is that G+ is here to stay and its effectiveness, as with anything that can drive correlation to an increase in business revenue, will be gamed where possible by some."
Dan Barker, independent e-commerce consultant (@danbarker on Twitter)
Dan's a practical man and sees an opportunity for retailers to take a creative approach to their customers who are using gmail as their account email address.
Odd Google+ tip: Email the gmail accounts on your database explaining how/why to +1 your site if they find it useful"
This relates back to my point that some digtial marketers will embrace the good of Google+ and look for ways to genuinely engage with customers and give them a reason to hit the +1 button.
And what do you think?
I'm not saying that Google Search+ is necessarily bad or that we'll be inundated with cans of link spam in a Monty Pythonesque digital headache - but I do think some low quality, spammy activity is inevitable.
I don't consider it black hat really, I just think laziness and/or lack of understanding leads to poor quality. And I fully expect Google to have a battle on its hands to learn how best to structure the search signals to ensure Google+ content in SERPs is relevant and, more importantly, wanted by searchers.