How social search is changing the search industry


The recently rolled out Google+ is Google’s latest effort to get a handle on something that so far has eluded the company: gaining access to the data users generate when they post status updates, share photos and comment on friends’ activities. More and more, these social “signals” are becoming key to remaining relevant in the online world, so if Google wants to remain on top, it needs to re-evaluate its business strategy and find a way to integrate these features into its offerings. That means other companies must also change the way they think about search in order to take advantage of its increasingly social nature.

Many failed attempts at getting social

Google’s failed attempts at social features are well documented: Orkut was the first — and, until Google+ came along, arguably the most successful — attempt to bolt a social element onto the company’s business. A Google engineer created the network based on the success of similar ventures such as Friendster, but Orkut failed to take off (though for some reason it became hugely popular in Latin America, until it was eventually eclipsed by Facebook). Then came Google Wave, Google Buzz and a number of social tweaks and add-ons for services such as Google News, none of which achieved much success for a variety of reasons: Among other things, Wave was too complicated and Buzz turned people off because of the way it handled privacy.)

As we’ve explained at GigaOM a number of times — dating back to Om’s Pro report on why Google should be afraid of social networking — the driving force behind these efforts is not a desire to mimic Facebook or provide a nice place for people to chat about photos of their pets. The main impetus is to extract information from the social activity that occurs on such networks and to use that information to make better decisions about search results and other targeted services. Doug Edwards, who was employee number 59 and involved in the development of Gmail and other major initiatives, succinctly described the company’s motivation in launching social efforts in a recent interview:

[I]t’s not because they enjoy warm and fuzzy social interaction and they think oh, this would be a really wonderful way to bring our friends together and build a social circle. They look at it and say, “the information created in social networks is extremely important and valuable. If we don’t have access to that information, Google will be less valuable as an information source.”

The key point is that social “signals” — Likes, retweets, etc. — are becoming a much more powerful force in determining user behavior online, which is forcing Google to re-evaluate its business. When the No. 1 interface for most Internet users was the search bar in their browser, Google had a dominant position at the top of the Internet food chain. In today’s social-networking world, where many people devote large amounts of their attention to Facebook, Twitter and other services, the movements — including shopping-related activity — of Internet users are being influenced more and more by the recommendations and social signals of their friends and the people they follow. That’s not to say search is being eclipsed by social networks, but there is no question that social information has become a much bigger part of trying to determine which ads Internet users are likely to click on.

Why Google needs to figure out how to be social

The bottom line for Google is that it has to figure out how to capitalize on those kinds of signals in order to maintain its dominant position between Internet users and the information they want. It has been trying to do this for some time now by tracking what the people connected to you through various Google services are doing, so that it can show you results that they have shared or given a +1 to. Until Google+ came along, not that many people had chosen to create Google profiles or connect them in this way.

Meanwhile, Google has watched Facebook and Twitter grow larger by the day. However, the social signals that are occurring on those networks can’t be plugged into its giant algorithm-driven engine. Facebook doesn’t share any of that kind of information with Google, and there isn’t much likelihood of that happening in the future, given the recent tension between the two. Twitter recently cut Google off from its “firehose” of tweet data. Google had been using that data as the core of its real-time-results offering, but was forced to shut it down until it can figure out a way to get access to that information again.

And so, with Google excluded from the two largest sources of social signals around, Google+ represents the best chance to date for the company to create its own index of social activity, with +1 buttons taking the place of Facebook Likes and sharing of posts standing in for Twitter retweets. The 25 million or so users that Google’s service has managed to sign up may not look like much compared with Facebook’s 700 million regular users or Twitter’s 300 million registered accounts, but Google has managed to hit that mark just three weeks after launch (although there are signs that this frenetic growth rate may not continue).

There are already some signs that activity on the company’s fledgling network is having an effect on the way Google ranks pages for search: If you are connected to someone through Google+ — say, for example, the page for Ford, which was an early beta tester — results that have been voted up or shared by that account will be higher in your results. This theoretically helps users get more relevant results, and also makes it easier for Google to sell the idea of Google+ brand pages to companies like Ford.

Social is changing the way that search works

An entire industry has grown up around Google and the way it handles web search — the SEO business, which is designed to help companies figure out how to get their websites to show up higher in Google’s results, based on assumptions about how the PageRank algorithm works. As the search giant and the rest of the web move toward social signals rather than raw page links, this shift to social search is going to have some profound effects on SEO and the way that companies connect to their customers. The bottom line is that companies will have to be more aware of — and actively involved in — social networks. If you or your company are trying to take advantage of this shift, here are a few of the things you need to keep in mind:

  • Google+ is a must-have part of your strategy. Even if it’s just a simple profile page for your company or business (as soon as corporate pages become available, which Google says will be coming soon) or a series of pages for brands and sub-brands, you need to be a part of Google’s new network, because that is where the company seems to be putting most of its hopes for social search.
  • Just having a profile page isn’t enough. Just as Google awards higher marks to web content that changes regularly rather than static landing pages, it will likely be looking for activity on Google+ rather than just a profile page. That means you have to engage with your customers or users via comments, +1 votes, etc.
  • Facebook and Twitter still matter too. Although Google may not be getting information directly from Twitter or Facebook to feed into search right now, it could work out a deal with either company in the future. This means you need to be active there now so that there’s a history of your activity. On top of that, Google has ways of getting at least some data from both networks via page scraping.
  • Authentic activity is better than tricks. The SEO business has always involved some element of deviousness, with companies trying to trick Google into ranking their pages highly via hidden URLs, etc. Social signals, however, are much more difficult to fake, and it’s worth keeping in mind that Google is likely to punish fake social activity just as rigorously as it does black-hat SEO games.

In the end, the rise of social search will reward companies that have a thriving community of users and engage regularly with those users on whatever networks exist as Google and other search-related services look at social signals as a way of measuring online influence, creating a kind of user rank similar to PageRank. If your company is one of those that is already using these networks to connect with your users, then the emerging social-media future will be a bright one. If not, then you have work to do — just like Google does.

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