When I first started doing Web Analytics eight years ago we were just getting in a position where we were looking to spend money on Search Engine Marketing. It was a new and exciting thing that a company called eBenchmarkers told us our competitors were starting to do. They were talking about spending money on putting paid adverts in Google to get more visits and sales, however it became quickly apparent that you could ‘game’ the system to get your website top of the natural search rankings without paying anything. As we got more sophisticated we realised that it wasn’t just brand and product terms that were getting sales, but longer tail traffic was more likely to convert. Search Engine Optimisation was born.
Whilst the layout may have had minor tweaks, the actual format of the results has changed quite significantly. Whilst in the olden days you would see a standard format of results, such as the one below, things are rapidly changing.
Figure one: Google search results (old format)
Since then, Google has introduced a number of new formats: local search results, where they’ll pinpoint on a map where the thing you are searching for is, news items for applicable searches and also visual content; both images and videos are pulled into results where appropriate. Even my blog has site links associated with it now as well. We’re in a world of what is called ‘Universal Search’.
Figure two: Google search results (current format)
Despite these shifts, one of the biggest changes to Google search was announced in January, coming off the back of several big changes to the way that Google works behind the scenes.
The first thing that came was Google announcing Google Plus. Even back in July 2011 some of us were questioning what impact it and Google +1 would have on search engine optimisation whilst others derided it as a techie’s Facebook.
But with the background data set up, Google went to the next step and announced in November 2011 that if you were logged in to a Google account then your Google search would be through their secure server, thereby hiding your search from the world as it was private to you. That mucked up a lot of people’s data because it turned out that Analytics systems couldn’t pick up the referrer and hence the search term, so they grouped all those visits together: (not provided) was Google Analytics’s response. No matter said some of us, despite (not provided) there was still plenty of data that they were making available, although in in hindsight many of us wouldn’t realise the impact – 30% of visits to my blog this year have come from (not provided).
Google has delivered ‘Personalised search’ results for a long time – things that you search for or click on whether logged in or not will impact future search results (it’s the reason that the person sitting next to you in the office will often have different results for a search phrase than you do). It was now doing it in a secure fashion so that websites couldn’t pick up information about you from your referrer data.
The big wammy that many of us were expecting came in January 2012 when Google confirmed what we’d been thinking all along – Google Plus is now a ranking factor for search engines. Now though, as well as taking into account what you like and dislike Google is going to be taking into account what your friends like and dislike. This presents a whole new set of challenges to the search engine optimiser. It is the birth of ‘Social Search’.
Figure three: Google+
What does this mean for your Search Engine Optimisation strategy? I think a good way of getting to the answer is to segment users in the following way:
- Users who know about your website and promote it
- Users who know about your website but don’t promote it
- Users who don’t know about your website
- Users who promote your competitor’s website
The key to social marketing is in making it easier for those who don’t know about your website to find those who do, and let them do the marketing on your behalf, rather than letting them find those who promote your competitor’s website.
This is important for your search engine rankings and it will have an effect on the quantity and quality of your traffic from a search engine. The example that I like to use is that if I promote BlueLatitude.net and its content through Google+, because Chris (who sits next to me) has me in one of his circles, BlueLatitude.net will appear higher in search engine rankings for related searches.
Effectively the things that I like are just as much of a ranking factor for BlueLatitude.net for the people in my circles as all those other websites who link to BlueLatitude.net. If you’re wondering whether you should be shifting your budget in the next few years then social marketing becomes important not just for targeted engagement, but also for SEO. Don’t just spend your SEO budget on getting links, setting up your site technically and working out which keywords you should be focussing on, but also on getting your users socially engaged.