Before long, SEO will not be enough to secure high-ranking search results. The amount of approval a brand wins on social media will also be a crucial factor.
Search used to be relatively simple. Although Google and Bing have tinkered many times with the algorithms that determine a site’s position on their results pages, the underlying principle has remained constant. The more people link to content, the further it will be pushed towards the top of search results.
With the rise of social media, however, people are increasingly discovering content not via internet search but through networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Search engines are evolving to catch up. Google has launched Google+ to invitees and is expected to open it to the public soon. Bing is experimenting with social search, combining Twitter conversations with general search results, and its findings are likely to be fed into a full-scale launch in the near future.
Google+ is widely seen as the result of Twitter refusing to sell to Google and Facebook appointing Bing as its search engine. The moves have prompted Google to end its deal with Twitter to index real-time posts and launch its own means of collating what people are discussing so that the information can be displayed in search results.
Google+ allows users to build up ’circles’ of friends and contacts, which can be divided into discrete groups, such as school pals and work colleagues. It enables users to ’like’ a page by clicking a ’+1’ icon. This is then considered when someone in their circle or another Google+ user conducts a search on that subject. So a page on mending a broken window that one of your friends found useful will be prioritised next time you turn to a Google search in need of help to replace a pane.
Google spokesperson Anoek Eckhardt explains that there are several elements to clicking the +1 icon that brands need to consider. The action influences search on three levels.
“First, +1-ing something is a public action. People you know, and potentially others, will see your +1 as an annotation when the page or ad you recommended appears in search results,” she says. “Second, by pressing +1, people are helping Google to personalise search results. You might see the pages you’ve +1-ed appear more prominently in your search results, along with a note that you’ve +1-ed them. Third, Google will incorporate clicks on +1 buttons in our ranking. As with any new ranking signal, we’ll be starting carefully.”
The weighting for +1 pages has yet to be finalised but the implication for brands is clear those which produce content that is liked will feature higher in search results for individuals and their circle of friends and contacts.
Microsoft group search manager Colm Bracken agrees that going social is the biggest change search has seen. “Search was about algorithms, but now it will also be about someone’s ’sociograph’.” He says this will make search more relevant. Consumers might see a product on a site that has been highly rated by a lot of people, but that’s not always as useful as knowing what their friends like because they know whether or not they are likely to agree with them.
“This is going to be a massive opportunity for people to invest in their brand proposition in social media,” says Bracken. “This will feed into improving natural search results. I can see natural search becoming all about branding, where results are improved by people liking what you are doing in social media and recommending your content, at the same time as paid-for search will be about tactical marketing.”
Lindsay Neal, SEO manager at insurance firm Swiftcover, argues that its eye-catching Iggy Pop ads exemplify the direction brands should take with their communications if you entertain people, they will share and ’like’ or ’+1’ your content and propel it up natural search results.
“It is the most exciting time natural search has seen. Brands that don’t entertain and engage their audience will struggle against competitors whose content is liked and shared.”
The potential for a virtuous circle between shared content on social media and natural search is also being explored by Viacom International Media Networks, which runs MTV.
Director of digital media Dan Patton advises brands to integrate the +1 feature now because it is already starting to make a positive difference for the broadcaster. “Social media is at the heart of everything we do at MTV,” he says. “We have massive reach on Facebook and Twitter but search still provides the largest chunk of the website audience. So we’re very interested in social search, which seems to provide the best of both worlds by giving a social authority to our search results in addition to their link authority.
“We have integrated Google +1 into mtv.co.uk and, with the help of agency VCCP Search, we are building an integrated search strategy that incorporates natural, paid and social search.”
Travel deal hunting brand Travelzoo is already integrating the +1 button. Travelzoo UK marketing manager Glyn Owen, says: “We welcome the integration of social media by search engines because we expect that both our paid and organic search listings will have improved click-through rates due to the social proof and endorsements from our subscribers.
“Having links with personalities behind them offers users something more reliable and trustworthy than SEO results from companies that spend thousands on building links. In travel, word-of-mouth is very powerful; it is a high-value, emotional purchase for consumers who have to choose between hundreds of options.”
Social search also enables brands that have been proactive in social media to capitalise on the positive image they have built. This can allow newer market entrants to catch up with more established players, who have yet to launch a significant social media strategy.
Geoff Marsh, online editor at Northern & Shell, says this has been the case for OK! magazine. Its digital and social media agency, MediaCom, claims that since building up its Twitter account to more than 150,000 followers in the past year, there has been a 160% rise in natural search traffic to the site. Social media now accounts for 15% of site traffic, which should lead to further increases in natural search click-throughs.
“It’s the next logical step in search to keep up with how people are now discovering content through social media,” he says.
“We have not yet seen a major effect on our traffic as Google+ is still invite-only and Bing has yet to launch its social search. However, we’re finding that social media is allowing us to rival magazines for traffic that have been established far longer than OK!. This will be increasingly the case once mainstream search goes social.
“It’s allowing us to capitalise on the hard work we have put into social media, but you can’t rely on this alone. We’re still working hard to build up bibliographies and galleries of well-known celebrities so that we feature well for searches on relevant keywords.”
At the moment, the ramifications of Google and Bing moving into social search are not being fully experienced. This will change as Google+ goes mainstream and Bing’s social search comes to the UK in the near future.
Brands that have already invested resources in building social media equity which has led to loyal followings on the major social sites, consuming, sharing, liking and commenting on content are sure to see further dividends. They are already experiencing raised traffic levels via clicks earned through social media link sharing, but now people liking that content is to be considered by the search engines.
For those that have yet to embrace social media, the message is clear. Get a presence and develop it, or drop down the natural search results pages as rivals with loyal social media audiences find all those ’like’ and ’+1’ clicks turn into better SEO performance.
Digital Strategy Supplement – September 2011 | By Sean Hargrave