Few things have united the online marketing community more than Google+. Everyone hates it. Widely regarded as unnecessary, Google users spent about 3 minutes per month on the website, versus about 8 hours on Facebook In a socially-saturated world, Google+ just isn’t adding up. But if we’re comparing Google+ to Facebook (and other social networks), maybe we’re being premature. Maybe Google+ is the only one that matters?
SEO is dead. Long live SEO!
At London SMX, a SEO conference, SEO writer Danny Sullivan said that for him, links as a ranking factor are broken. He used a voting analogy. When Google first started talking about links, they said they gave them a lot of importance because they were democratic. Any webmaster could vote for a site of their choice. But they were only democratic in the same sense that the US was when you could only vote if you were a property-owning white man. To link to a site, you still had to own a site, know about anchor text and be relatively tech savvy. Nowadays that’s not really relevant.
Today, if people want to link to a site, they are far more likely to post the address on Facebook or Twitter. Everyone has an account and no technical knowledge is required. This kind of social sharing, to carry on the metaphor, is a more universal suffrage. Which is why all the search engines use social interactions as a ranking factor.
But they can only go so far. Because it’s so easy to link to a site on these platforms, it is also very easy to manipulate. Consider how many brands on Facebook get people to like a post so that they can enter a competition. Or on Twitter, they ask users to share their thoughts and include a URL or a hashtag. If these sorts of interactions also helped your search engine ranking, big brands could very quickly go overboard and essentially be paying for likes and retweets to get more traffic. And policing it would be almost impossible. Social interactions, in other words, could never count as strongly as links do. But what then, are the ‘new’ links?
Lisa Myers also at SMX confidently asserted, “rel=author tags are the most important social signal”. Rel=author tags are a line of code that tells Google who's written the content on the page, so if likes and re-tweets weren’t going to be a big factor, perhaps people are?
Why people matter
This then, brings us back to Google+. Increasingly it seems that Google is mapping people to each other and to companies. Go to http://www.google.com/s2/search/social and you can see ‘your world’ according to Google. You’ll have your friends there, and content you’ve shared socially. They’ll have the same, even if they don’t have a Google+ account. You’ll probably also see the company you work for, your boss, your entire life.
Google is getting an increasingly nuanced picture about you and who you are. If you’re an English professor who specializes in say, Romantic poetry, in the very near future it might be the case that an article you write on your personal blog might out-rank something written on your college’s website. By using the rel=author tag, Google will be able to see that an article written by you about your subject is more likely to be more authoritative than say, something written anonymously on a well-regarded site.
From Google’s point of view this is a no-brainer. It’s hard, if not impossible, to manipulate your personal rankings in the way that you can with links, or any other element of SEO.
SEO becomes social
So now the very idea of a social network is in danger of becoming redundant. It’s no secret that I’m a Facebook sceptic but hear me out.
Facebook is about sharing stuff with your friends. Twitter is about following people you’re interested in but (most of the time) have no personal connection to. SEO is becoming both. If I search for a restaurant, it’s likely that I’m going to be interested in which ones my friends like. After all, I don’t want to go to a bad one, and I trust my friends more than the review sites. But if I’m searching for, say, SEO news, I want to hear from the experts. I personally trust Danny Sullivan more than I trust anyone else. But that’s not to say everyone does. You might be more of a Matt Cutts boy/girl.
With Google+, the search engine can get a really clear picture about who your friends are, and who you admire. As you interact with some posts more than others, they will quickly see who you trust and who you don’t. And this is bad news for the social networks because they just can’t compete with that. Their expertise lies in facilitating sharing, not organizing (and monetizing) data. (For evidence of this, log in to Facebook and see how many ads you click. The answer, almost certainly, is zero.) The things people currently do on social networks, reading an endless deluge of what friends are eating for lunch, or what they’re watching on TV, might still have a place in the coming years. But I’d be amazed if they’re anything like the mainstream activity they are now. Google+ has the potential to offer us the information we want, when we want, and from whom we want. And all they want in return is our privacy.
But no one is on Google+? How can they do those things?
A quick glance at the s2/search URL earlier shows that actually, this process is already underway, regardless of how many people are ‘plussing’. Google has such a vast web of properties that for most people, it probably already knows a hell of a lot. People may not be on Google+ but a lot of people have Google accounts, so the company can monitor what they’re searching for, which sites they like and how they behave on line.
Of those, some people will have a gmail account so they can also see their contacts. Even if they have none of these things, if they have an Android mobile phone, Google’s mobile operating system, Google can get all this and more. And remember Google’s market share is such that most people have used their search engine, so using your IP they can still build up a rough picture. Oh, and then there’s the Chrome browser, the world’s most popular
For those of us that have a Gmail account, an Android phone, even a Chromebook, Google probably knows more about us than our parents. Or closest friends.
All this information is weaving its way into Google’s search results. But make no mistake. Google wants your data, so it wants you on Google+
Where all this is headed
59% of the world’s cell phones run on Android. As anyone at Nokia will tell you, being dominant in the mobile space won’t last forever, but Android is open source. It is by definition more versatile than Nokia ever could be. For the medium term at any rate, the smart money goes on Android dominating mobile.
So Google is dominant in the mobile space. And global mobile traffic is doubling year on year. Chrome is the most popular browser. We’re spending more of our time on Google’s properties. And Google, let’s remember, doesn’t play nice. And I’ll say this again, they want you on Plus.
Already, if you want a Gmail account, you have to sign up to Google+ Would it be so hard to imagine that they’ll do the same with Android phones? After all, if they can get access to every article you read and site you visit, then share it where relevant to people in your circles, they could completely cut Facebook and Twitter out of the equation. They could start slow I guess, maybe just make it easier for people to ‘plus’ something on Android than it is to Facebook or Tweet it. But given what’s at stake, I’m not sure they’ll go a lot further than that.
The web has changed a lot since Google first started. It is exponentially more complex, but if anything consumer expectations have only got higher. We still want search engines to give us simple answers in an ever-more-complicated world. To do this Google needs data, so that’s what they’re going after.
Because they don’t have a choice. If it can’t do the job people need, they’ll just go elsewhere. Facebook has its challenges but it also has dollars and data. One day, it might learn how to use them. And Google knows it. It hasn’t launched Plus to be a cool social media company; it’s not a sinister plot to track and monitor the entire world, it’s essential to Google’s survival. If Plus fails, so does Google.
This isn’t just another product, or a ranking factor or fun social media tool. It’s everything.
Have I convinced you? Please let us know below.
Update: As though proving my point, as of of today, 30th May, Google has added + to another of its products. Introducing Google+ local!. Essentially, there’s now tab on your Google+ page called 'local'. Search for something and put in a destination, like say, ‘coffee in London’ and you’ll get something like this.
You get all the contact details, as you did before, with new social elements . The reviews are out of 30 and from Zagat, a property Google recently bought. Over time, this rating system will be expand, and start incorporating the reviews from people in your network. So if you’re looking for a coffee shop in London, the reviews from your friends and people in your network will come up. Clearly, Google is ‘baking’ social functionality into more and more of its properties. Expect more of this to come in future.
And if you’re not on Google+, check out our free Google+ PDF guide