Google’s +1 Button and The Rise of Social SEO

Google’s +1 Button and The Rise of Social SEO

Dylan Touhey

On June 1st 2011, Google officially released their +1 Button, a new social sharing feature that includes recommendations from people in your social circle alongside search results and ads. Google has tried to combine social and search before–remember Google Buzz? –and it’s not clear yet if this new product will stick. But one thing is clear: the rise of social SEO is here to stay. And it’s evolving fast.

To understand some of the changes taking place, though, we need to look beneath the surface of the +1’s obvious second-place status to the Facebook Like Button. Google’s new feature is revealing how they are beginning to hard-wire social signals into their search algorithms–a change that requires SEO’s (Search Engine Optimizers) to rethink the traditional concept of the link as the primary way to organize and navigate the web.

The world wide web just got smaller

Google’s success has always been in shrinking–not expanding–the user’s exposure to the vast amount of content on the web. In 1994, when other search engines were focused on building a complete search index, Google recognized that relevant results are more important than vast, complete archives. In the classic Google paper, “Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” Sergey Brin and Larry Page laid out the algorithms and architecture of their new engine, stating that “high precision is important even at the expense of recall.” Their algorithms did this by relying on what they called the “collective intelligence” of the web: links or citations that were evidence of people voting for the most important web pages. This seems like a basic point. But Google has consistently been the best search engine by following their simple user-centered principle: searchers only want results that relate to their individual context, meaning that less is often more.

From this perspective, the +1 Button is really just another attempt to make results more meaningful to users–adding input from your friends and acquaintances, personalizing your experience of world-wide search and ad results. Google’s philosophy is: you are most interested and influenced in what people close to you recommend.

This is, in some ways, different than traditional SEO. In the past, websites are typically voted up the search results page by links from strangers. But with the rise of social SEO, search results will be influenced and augmented by not only who you are online, but who you know, trust, and interact with. People, as the new buzz-phrase goes, are the new links.

How it works

On the surface, the +1 looks and acts a lot like the Facebook Like Button. If a user likes an article, a search result, or advertisement, they click on the button and cast their vote. This vote is then stored publicly and also used to influence your social circle.

Pulling data from your Google profile, Google looks at your social connections to determine which +1’s might be helpful to you and which of your +1’s might be helpful to your friends. And they are able to dig pretty deep into your digital self and social circle. After Bing announced that it made a deal to access some information from Facebook and Twitter to include into its search results, Google didn’t want to be left behind. Currently, Google has some access to Twitter, as well as can grab data from partners such as the Blogger platform, LinkedIn, and Flickr.

The result is the ability to pull fairly accurate recommendations from your social connections, based on similar interests, proximity, and activities online.

Let’s say you are searching for a hotel in Vancouver BC. As you search, Google will instantly scan your social contacts, looking for +1‘s from your social circle. So on one search result you might find that your Aunt stayed at the Marriott in Vancouver–and she left behind a +1. With her recommendation (and your knowledge that your Aunt is very picky about the hotels she stays in), you can make a better choice.

Before if you wanted advice on say, a movie or new coffeemaker, you might go to a high-ranking website for a review. You’d assume that because the website is popular (a result of links), the advice must be good. Now, you can just as easily see a +1 from your friend on a search result–trusting people closer to you for advice, rather than strangers online.

So from a SEO perspective, the +1 Button shows that social signals are going to continue to become more and more powerful, reliable forms of links.

But before you go and fire your SEO team and run to the social media gurus consider that...

All people (and links) aren’t equal

Not online, at least. You might trust your Aunt for a search for a hotel room, but what if you want to buy a new mountain bike?

As in traditional Page Rank (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PageRank), Google will not just count all social votes (links or +1’s) as equal. Just like Twitter, Google most likely has a ranking system for users. And as social search continues to evolve, online influence is becoming tied to individual people, rather than web properties.

So if a SEO expert likes a page on French cooking utensils  and has never expressed interest in that subject, their +1 won’t have as much influence as they would, say, on a new SEO article.

And this is not just speculation. In a 2010 interview with Danny Sullivan , both Bing and Google explicitly stated that they count social signals and authority:

Bing: We do look at the social authority of a user. We look at how many people you follow, how many follow you, and this can add a little weight to a listing in regular search results. It carries much more weight in Bing Social Search, where tweets from more authoritative people will flow to the top when best match relevancy is used.

Google: Yes, we do use it as a signal. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article.While Google has always seen links as social, human votes, now this relationship is a little more direct–with user profiles holding more currency online.

+1 +1 +1 = 0?

The most +1’s win? It’s a bit more complex than that.

Common sense would say that the metric will be the number of +1’s you can get for a page. Spammers would love that just like they love chasing thousands of garbage links to boost their rankings. But the +1 Button goes deeper into SEO than just the sheer volume of +1’s you can ring up.

The real value for Google is that when you put the button on your site, they are able to put a cookie on someone’s browser so as to prevent users from voting multiple times. Otherwise, spammers would just create fake Google profiles and hammer their web properties all day.

What is more likely is that, the +1 Button will be calling up a JavaScript from your site. That means that most likely Google will be able to tell how many impressions that page gets. In other words, Google will be watching how people engage with your content. If you have 5,000 page loads and 50 +1’s you might beat most pages in terms of social signals. But if a competing page only gets loaded 500 times and gets 25+1’s, Google will most likely look past the numbers and focus on the ratio of views per social vote. In short, the pages will better ratios, even if they have different traffic levels, will most likely do better in the search algorithms. (For a good podcast explaining this metric in more detail, go here)

In other words, it’s still SEO 101: search engines know that good content gets shared and recommended. And you won’t be able to rank with out good links and strong social signals.

Looking forward. . .

While the rise of social search means some SEO techniques will have to change, the core purposes of Google remains: find and sort billions of pages into intuitive, relevant results.

Installing the +1 Button on your site is definitely recommended. Google will be looking for those social signals and the +1 is just another way to show them the value people see in your site. The basic optimization of the button is the same as the Facebook Like Button: feature it prominently on every post, encourage visitors to share, and write content that gives people something to talk about.

But like any new algorithm factor, don’t expect to see Google’s +1 immediately affect your organic traffic. Google will test it, see how people try to exploit it, and rigorously experiment it before has any significant influence.

If you’d like to take advantage of +1 and other social search mechanisms to improve your organic search results One Net Marketing offers expertise in both Search and Social with proven results across B2B and B2C sectors. Check out our service page for more info or contact us directly for a free consultation. We’re also on Twitter @onenetmarketing and quick to respond to online marketing questions.