Google Unveils a Social Search Revolution

January 17, 2012 • Blog, Search, Social • Views: 580

On January 10th, Google announced a massive changeto their core search product. Called “Search, Plus Your World,” Google’s basic search results are now integrated with Google+ social content in a huge way.Logged-in users searching will now have the option to not only search the general web, but also search private social content shared by friends and family through Google+. This new version of social search includes a greater focus on personalized results, and has Google+ content, people, and pages included directly in search.

Industry reaction to these updates has been mixed. Firstly, social data is drawn entirely from Google+, with Facebook and Twitter left out. While Google maintains that Facebook and Twitter would be included Google had access, feedback from Twitter has been negative, with Twitter General Counsel Alex Macgillivray, calling it a “bad day for the Internet”:

As usual, Google’s also facing both privacy and antitrust issues with this social update. Privacy advocates may complain that this update exposes private data and collects too much personal information, while antitrust lobbyists argue that this is yet another case of Google favoring it’s own results.

For marketers, the big issue is how Google’s increasing “social creep” will impact search results and SEO campaigns. It seems clear that this update is yet another example of the increasing importance of social signals, and therefore the decreasing relevance of links.

The Mechanics of Search+

Search+ is based on three key features: Personal Results, Profiles in Search, and People and Pages. Personal Results in this context has a different meaning than some SEOs may think – this isn’t just a case of web content being given an boost because of social signals.

Rather, Google’s core search is now directly integrating with Google+ search, and pulling in private, personal content, and directly meshing this personal social content with standard web results. This means that social search doesn’t just reorder rankings, but creates entirely new content.

Profiles in Search represent a heavy push of Google+ profiles within search results. Users typing a name into the search box will now be prompted with suggestions for Google+ profile pages. Users who do choose the Google+ suggestion will see G+ posts in search, and have the option to quickly follow that G+ user.

This is very similar to Google’s Direct Connect feature for brand pages, except that for profiles, users will be prompted with suggestions both for their personal friends, as well as prominent Google+ users.

Finally, People and Pages integrates Google+ profiles directly within search results, as suggestions for non-name queries. Google gives the example of “music”, which when currently searched, returns prominent suggestions for Britney Spears’ and Snoop Dogg’s Google+ profiles.

The Competitive Landscape

Accusations of favoritism have plagued Search+ since it’s launch. The core complaint is that Google’s integration of G+ content favors Google’s own properties at the expense of relevance. While we’ve been hearing similar accusations for years, based on many different Google search issues, Search+ favoritism seems especially problematic.

As Danny Sullivan argues, there’s an important difference between vertical search and Search+. For example, Google Product search promotes Google’s own results in a sense, since it places Google Product feeds within core search results. However, ultimately product search leads users to destinations outside of Google.

This is not the case for Search+, which directs users to a completely Google-owned property, the goal of which is “stickiness,” and user acquisition. Google even has very clear calls-to-action prompting G+ sign-up within search, as the profile sidebar prompts users to “Learn how they could show up”, by signing up for Google+.

This social favoritism is behind the ongoing Google-Twitter dispute, where Twitter continues to accuse Google of promoting G+ results, when Twitter results would actually be more useful. Google, of course, argues that Twitter doesn’t allow enough content access.

However, the reality is that there are clear cases where G+ is being favored. For example, in the “music” search that many are citing, there’s no reason why popular artists’ Facebook and Twitter profiles couldn’t be included. While it might be fair for Google to claim that they can’t include specific Tweets in search as well as they can include G+ posts, the idea that Google can’t identify the Twitter account for say, Lady Gaga, seems implausible.

The Marketing Angle

For businesses and marketers, at least one thing is clear: Google+ is now a critical marketing vehicle. While many people may have been sceptical about the success or relevance of G+, at this point, Google’s throwing so much weight behind Search+, that businesses simply can’t afford to miss the potential traffic.

Aside from the basic advice of being active on Google+, sharing content, building connections, and so on, it is interesting to consider how Google+ will impact traditional SEO activities such as link building.

Firstly, it’s obvious that G+ activity will be used by Google as a social ranking factor. As Google continues to face issues with paid links and other forms of spam, the immense amount of social data offered by Google+ will inform web rankings in a very significant capacity.

The heavy integration of Google+ also seems to be another blow against the increasingly old-school technique of link building. While links aren’t dead by any means, it seems clear that Google would rather rely on their own social and user data, than linking data.

Instead of PageRank, something like “Profile Authority” could be used to measure the value of an individual user’s social activity. By combining user data from a multitude of sources, including Google+, Gmail, Search history, Chrome or Android data, and so forth, Google will have established a massive repository of information that it can use to make highly accurate ranking decisions.

Search+ represents a massive leap towards a trend we already knew was coming – the integration of Social and Search. While Google might be getting hit with complaints now, these are likely to pass, and Search+ is likely to remain.

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