Perhaps two of the largest entities in cyberspace, Google and Facebook, have been waging their own digital turf wars – albeit not always directly with each other – throughout the past several years.
By taking an in-depth look at the interaction between these two powerhouse players, as we will in this article, it becomes clear that Google will prevail, and quite decidedly at that. Facebook’s death will be slow and painful, causing the majority of grief to its nearly 1 billion users along the way.
However, while Google will likely endure the blame for crushing Facebook in the coming year, the social behemoth’s demise will actually come at the hand of marketing communities across the internet. I’ll explain why throughout this article.
Marketers Follow the Masses
This is one thing that has always been true and will continue to stay true, even throughout the deluge of technological advancements yet to come. Marketing is a constant pursuit to promote messaging in front of as many eyeballs as possible, hopefully maximizing exposure at the lowest possible cost.
For most of us in this digital age, that means we can expect to see ads just about everywhere we look. It’s getting so pervasive that I sometimes wonder how long it will take before the first ‘in-dream ads’ are being broadcast.
According to Futurama, that’ll happen before long, as we know from Fry’s ‘Lightspeed Briefs’ sponsored dream sequence.
But for now, while the secrets of telepathic advertising remain a mystery, marketers have to settle for densely populated regions of the web, namely Facebook and Google. Unfortunately, the majority of advertising we encounter daily is what we lovingly refer to as ‘spam’. It’s important, however, that we all recognize the tenacity of marketers to leverage our favorite hangouts for business promotion.
The Holy Google Grail – Chasing the Top Spot in Search
With a realistic understanding of the aggressiveness of digital marketing in our most frequented hotspots, it’s no surprise that the highly coveted number one spot on Google’s search results is akin to the Holy Grail of web marketing for businesses.
We made a snazzy infographic to better convey why that top spot is so attractive:
On top of all those ‘no-brainer’ stats, there’s no cost for being listed in organic Google search results. Simply put, Google offers the highest possible exposure opportunity for the lowest possible price.
A Matter of Factors
It’s pretty clear how valuable it is to secure top positioning in Google, so let’s look at how search marketers pursue that prized placement in the Search Engine Result Pages (or “SERPs”).
Google has various ways of measuring whether a given website should rank highly or not. These criteria are ‘Ranking Factors’, and some factors are given more weight than others in determining a site’s ranking in search results.
The goal of SEOs and web marketers is therefore encompassed in a constant pursuit to optimize a website’s Google ranking factors, in hopes the almighty search giant will grant them favor when placing the result in the SERPs. The better your ranking factors, the higher you’ll be on the page.
Facebook as a Ranking Factor
Now we reach the catalyst of the scenario – the key component bringing about this clash of titans. We’re talking about the notion that Facebook content, from web links to number of “Likes”, is considered a ranking factor in Google’s search result placements.
This is quite the hot topic in the digital marketing realm as of late, and there’s no shortage of posts on the subject. But regardless of all the speculation, rumor, expert advice and data digging; it’s important to take into account a couple of key facts about our industry:
- “Social Signals” are often mistakenly interchanged with “Ranking Factors”, although these are actually two completely different things.
- Google provides only minimal guidance for search marketing communities, leaving us to rely on our own industry community for developing strategies and best practices. The drawback to this is a lot of misinformation and widespread consensus of concepts that simply aren’t true.
With conditions like these, the actual facts about how Google treats Facebook-based ranking factors start to become less important because consensus (even if it’s false) about something this big spreads quickly throughout the online marketing realm.
At this point, we see some fracturing in the community. While a few small pockets of skeptics refuse to believe in Facebook ranking factors, the vast majority of the community adopts – and spreads – the notion as true. This includes myriad inexperienced marketers who simply still haven’t learned how to separate fact from fiction while researching the trade.
The Correlation Conundrum
As explained earlier, search marketers simply don’t have enough evidence from Google that clearly defines Facebook signals as ranking factors for websites. Instead, the community relies heavily on correlations found through data analysis.
Remember that small pocket of fact-reliant skeptics I mentioned earlier? This is the part where they’re all ranting that “Correlation is not causation!”
And they’re exactly right. All of that correlative data is great for making some decent speculative deductions, but does not represent definitive evidence regarding Google’s infusion of Facebook signals into a website’s ranking factors.
There are tons of articles and web pages dedicated to this subject, complete with extensive research and seemingly actionable conclusions.
Some of the most authoritative web marketing and SEO resources on the web have published findings that show compelling correlations between social signals and a website’s search engine performance.
Perhaps the best example is this graph, originally published on Search Metrics last year:
This graph has started popping up on blogs and marketing resources all over the web, largely used as a support reference for similar claims that Facebook impacts Google rankings significantly.
It’s no wonder, really. Even at first glance, anyone just browsing by will likely arrive at the same conclusion based on this illustration: Facebook signals have become gigantic ranking factors in SEO.
The flames are fanned even more when videos like this one pop up offering precious evidence, supposedly straight from Google (some of it even ‘leaked’), that defines the fabled search-social connection. It’s entirely possible that, after seeing videos like this, an entire swath of the internet marketing community will buy in on the spot.
But these seemingly groundbreaking details still aren’t converting the seasoned skeptics, who find it all too easy to poke plenty of holes in the story.
So what are the actual facts? While the context of the source article at Search Metrics explains that the data shown in this graph is all correlative, plenty of marketers will adopt this data as proof of Facebook’s huge impact on Google’s website rank factoring.
Same thing with the ‘proof leaked’ video – perhaps even more so, due to the implication that the information is backed by the big G itself.
So in summation, the take-away here is that we’ve passed up the point where Google’s confirmation of Facebook’s impact on ranking actually matters. The pervasive amount of correlative data being continuously generated within the marketing community simply overshadows the hard facts.
Granted, while all of these correlations can’t replace Google’s official explanation of exactly how they use Facebook in website rankings, they sure seem convincing.
So, to be fair, we still have to ask: What if these correlations really do mean that Facebook has the strong influence they imply? At this point, it honestly doesn’t matter because the vast majority of marketers will act on it regardless.
Digital Marketing Mayhem
Because the internet essentially levels the playing field for businesses by affording relatively equal opportunity exposure for everyone regardless of size and capital, the online space is the most populated, competitive realm in the world.
It’s also constantly changing (thanks in no small part to Google). Digital marketing has become a burgeoning industry of its own, with an equally competitive agenda as the clients they serve. In the past decade, we’ve seen – and continue to see – how ‘spammy’ web marketers swarm through the web in hasty, aggressive attempts to exploit the latest trends. Let’s look at a few examples:
- Reciprocal linking (link exchanges)
- Link Farms and Content Farms
- On-Page Keyword stuffing
- Mass email spam marketing
- Affiliate & Referral marketing
- Mass directory listings
- Anchor text link spam
Still today, some of these more recently adopted tactics are still spreading throughout the worldwide web liberally. We can even still see the remnants of older marketing methods, long-known to be ‘dead’, floating around cyberspace like fossilized, spammy eyesores.
It’s likely, then, that the idiom about history always repeating itself will hold true with Facebook as marketers gravitate toward the apparent Google-boosting boon. The first subtle signs are already appearing, as a more aggressive business presence on the social network has recently risen.
Cause of Death is Two-Fold
The death of Facebook won’t be quick and painless. It’ll be an agonizing, slow and steady decline into oblivion, with a ravenous horde of spammers laying claim to the land. It will likely occur over two stages.
The first stage is a rapid growth spike in users (mostly marketers and spam accounts), followed by a plunge in population as users are driven away by a deluge of advertising (both from Facebook promotion and independent campaigns). Consistent privacy concerns and unsettling design reformatting won’t help matters either. We’re currently in the midst of that growth spike now, effectively lighting the fuse for the impending explosion.
Strong data correlations exist between this spike in active users (as shown in State of the Media’s graph above) and the increased prevalence of content on the web that cites Google’s use of Facebook signals as ranking factors. As the correlations mount, so does the marketing on Facebook.
Viral trends are the inherent nature of Facebook, with content and user behavior largely influenced through a chain reaction of consensus. That rule is no different in terms of members jumping ship. Just as quickly as they grew, Facebook’s ranks will disperse.
Having grown frustrated of the incessant marketing and Facebook’s weakening privacy controls, the user base will teeter over the tipping point and the drop in population will trigger the second stage of Facebook’s demise.
Facebook will join the marketing frenzy and attempt to recover losses (including those to their stock prices) through increased monetization efforts as organic users flee the social network en masse. Expect to see a lot more Facebook-sourced advertising, page promotion campaigns and other marketing efforts. These actions are strictly a last resort at easing the pain of death and will ultimately serve to alienate the remnant user base as they, too , finally trickle out.
The trail blazed by the web marketing industry is a deep and winding rocky road with plenty of forks along the way, many leading to miry pits. We who traverse it with prudence will remain vigilant despite distractions and stay our footing with careful observation. But we are the minority.