It is painfully cliché to talk about “the rise of social” and “the power of social media.” That happened a long time ago. Now it’s settled, and we can make some real progress.
The power of social lives on beyond its ubiquity, and wields a transformative impact on SEO. Please understand that I’m not going to propagate any myths about how to increase your rankings via social media. Nor am I going to propose that SEO-is-dead-so-long-live-social. Instead, I’ll attempt to demonstrate how social is infringing upon the traditional realm of SEO as a major factor in how people find information, convert, and interact with the Internet.
The argument over the correlation of social likes and search rankings is moot.
First, social likes are important. Their impact upon search rankings, however, is not relevant to this discussion.
Bloggers and pundits love to discuss the search ranking value of an active social presence. “Do Facebook ‘Likes’ Increase Search Rankings,” asks one author. (Her answer, interpreted: “Uh, we’re not sure.”) Groupon explains “How to Improve Your Search Rankings with Social Media.” Others croon that Facebook comments can improve one’s rankings.
There’s little value in debating such claims. The studies are inconclusive. What we need to do now is determine what real changes have taken place that actually affect searches.
Social Factors That Impact SEO
Keep in mind that SEO is alive and well. Yet along with the continued impact of SEO is the increasing dependence upon social for how people search, find, and respond to information. Here are the major factors that are forming this social search trend.
1. Personalized search results.
By default, Google returns results that are most relevant to you personally, assuming you are logged in to a Google account. If you look in the upper right corner of your search results page, here’s what you’ll see:
The icon circled in red indicates that your SERP is “currently showing personal results.” Clicking the globe icon will “hide personal results.” Personal results dish up all the general content that correlates with your search, but will also show “pages, photos, and Google+ posts from your friends,” according to Google’s explanation. Google personalizes search results in order “to deliver you the most useful, relevant content for your search.”
When I searched for “Google authorship,” I returned a list of results, including this one:
See the circled icon? That informs me that this is a personalized search result. Search Engine Land is in my Google Circles. Thus, they get position number five on my personal SERP, and are denoted by the image.
Personalized results have a huge impact for real life. If you search for a lawn care company, you’re likely to return top-ranked results that your friends have +1ed. If you look for pictures of “horses” and your friend has photos of her appaloosa on her Google+ account, that’s what will top the list of pictures.
Larry Magid bemoans personalized search results in his Huffington Post article. He bases his complaints on “privacy and antitrust concerns” and “biased results.” He has a point: “It kind of ruins what Google spent so many years building.”
Hate it or love it, personalized search results mean that search engine optimization loses influence. Instead, personalized search factors bear heavily upon which returns feature prominently in your results.
You can thank social for this massive change in how SEO works.
2. Anything “viral” is social.
The whole viral trend is built on the power of social media. Nothing goes viral unless it is “shared,” and nothing is shared unless it happens via social media.
You simply can’t pull off a viral trend by performing some SEO tricks. It has to be social.
3. The Social Foundation of Local Search
Local search has experienced a radical transformation since the advent of Google Places and Yahoo! Local. The results delivered by these sites are built upon social interaction and the weight of social profiles, whether business entities or individuals. From Facebook check-ins, to Yelp ratings, to Foursquare interaction, local search depends heavily upon social involvement.
4. The Impact of Google+
Google+ is a game changer. I’ve already mentioned how personalized search results are determined based on who posts what in your circles. There are other major changes besides.
Let’s take one example. Google results now show the picture of the author next to the content. You’ve probably seen search results that look like this:
Those smiling mugs get a 150% increase in click-through rates over their non-pictured counterparts according to Catalyst. It pays to be seen. In other words, it pays to be active on social networks like Google+. That’s where these pictures originate — a bit of rich snippet wizardry and Google authorship verification on Google+.
Google+ is the single most powerful social force on the Internet today. Facebook may have a bigger market share, but Google+ has a bigger ownership of search power. Facebook doesn’t write the algorithms; Google does.
What’s more, Google+ isn’t just a social network; it’s a personalized web experience that extends to your every interaction with Google products. The persistent Google navigation bar keeps you constantly in tune with a personalized web experience:
This means that you’re never more than a click away from the social spin on whatever it is you’re doing.
5. Social network searches
Much of our interaction with the web comes through our social channels. In addition to Googling, you’re also visiting sites by means of the following methods:
- Clicking links that your friends post on Facebook
- Viewing Tumblr accounts
- Clicking all those bit.ly links on Twitter, even though you don’t know what they link to
- Checking out articles that have been +1ed by people in your Google+ Circles
Web users spend a lot of time on social media. Their engagement with the web is built on how they interact with their social circles. Data from one social media research project in late 2012 revealed that 18% of the time spent online is spent on social media.
Often, rather than search for a site on Google, people will search for a site’s social profile. A Facebook business page provides excellent at-a-glance results for a local establishment’s business hours. In fact, it’s way better than navigating to the business website, tracking down the information, and hunting for the business hours. The Facebook page instantly shows the business hours.
One of the most powerful effects of a social network is the way it transforms customer decision-making. Search Engine Land’s 2012 study stated, “72% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.” More than half of consumers agreed that positive online reviews increased their likelihood of using a local business. E-consultancy declares that 88% of customers will consult reviews before finalizing an online purchase. Even conversion rates are affected by social.
Again, social media is jostling with SEO for dominancy in how people find what they’re looking for, and how they make their decisions.
The extent of social’s impact on search is evolving, which is characteristic of the SEO industry. We can’t forget that anything created on the web is social. Nearly every article we read is connected with an individual author, complete with his or her Twitter handle and Google+ profile. There is no escaping the intensely social nature of the Internet as a whole. Now, there’s no escaping how it is completely changing the world of SEO as we know it.