2011 was a year of very dramatic change in the world of SEO, with the most notable change coming from Google’s Panda updates, which significantly changed how the search engine processes and ranks web pages.
In an effort to make search more secure, on Oct. 18th Google announced that users logged into their Google accounts using www.google.com would be redirected to https://www.google.com. The search queries by these users would hence be encrypted and not available to website owners via web analytics tools. This means that your analytics will not capture any referral data from logged in searches.
There’s little doubt that search is changing, it’s becoming more social and more personal. It’s no longer the mundane experience of typing in some text, scanning the results and being done with it. It’s now about how to transform the search results to be contextually related to a user’s social media presence.
Whether its tweets that show up in Google Search results or the Liked Search results on Bing, search is getting personalized. As social media’s influence on the web continues to grow, social ranking signals have entered the discussion as the next generation of SEO tactics.
Of all the search engine tweaks and changes over time, perhaps none is more significant than the gradual, ongoing integration of social media signals.
With social media adoption growing at such an incredible pace, search engines now have access to a massive, rich set of data on page popularity and quality. By integrating social signals, search engines have a direct line to understanding human opinion, and will continue to use this data to determine how pages should rank.
The Social-Search Landscape
Search engines haven’t been shy with their pushes towards social integration. Bing has partnered with Facebook, and continues to expand the impact of Facebook data in its search results.
Google has been even more direct with social integration, with their launch of Google+, and the rapid connection between organic search and Google+ data. Google has been upfront about the ranking impact, stating that “+1s will be one of many signals we use to calculate organic search ranking.”
We can see that it’s no longer a question if social signals impact search. They do, and marketers need to start understanding and optimizing for this connection.
Trust and Authority
Social signals play a very specific role in search engine rankings. Social signals generally address concepts like trust, quality, authority, and popularity. They usually don’t inform search engines about relevance.
When Google wants to know what a page is about, classic on-page signals still do the job. When Google wants to know how *good* a web page is, social signals are hugely valuable.
Search engines love social signals because, in theory, a social mention is a genuine signal of quality, expressed by a real human.
The gradual replacement of links with social signals is really what lies at the core of the social-search revolution. Not only does social data measure quality more directly, it can also be analyzed more deeply.
Link spam has been an SEO problem ever since links became important. When Google crawls for links, it has limited data. Google might know what a page links to, when a link was added, and other such metrics, but in many cases, search engines simply don’t have enough link data to make very accurate decisions.
For social signals, search engines can know so much more. Imagine Google using G+ to find page quality signals. Not only does Google know what pages were mentioned on G+, Google also knows a huge amount about who mentioned which pages.
Using the concept of “people rank”, Google can look at how many followers a user has, how long they’ve had a Google account, search activity, Gmail usage, YouTube, Google Calendar, and so on.
This huge depth of data allows Google to make extremely informed decisions about the value of a social mention. While some aspects of link analysis have to be done “blind”, social signals give search engines unprecedented confidence in ranking signal accuracy.
The socialization of search is more than just Tweeted URLs or Facebook Likes or LinkedIn Shares having a positive impact on generic rankings, it’s about influencing your social graph to see the content you share in their search results.
Suddenly, a huge social reach is a competitive advantage in SEO. If you’re doing SEO today, I think it’s no longer possible to ignore the growth of your social connections as a big part of your SEO strategy. Twitter followers, Facebook connections, LinkedIn account size and engagement across these won’t just be social metrics; they’ll be KPIs for SEO, too.
Is SEO Dead?
SEO in some form will remain a critical marketing activity for as long as search remains a critical consumer activity.
Although SEO isn’t dead, its definition is changing. When social signals play a critical role in search, an SEOs job becomes more about optimizing for humans, than optimizing for search engines.
Ultimately, social media will drive the evolution of SEO, from being a game of algorithmic cat-and-mouse, to a truly valuable exercise in optimizing for engagement.
The basics of SEO still apply. Use the right keywords, and make sure search engines can find your pages and read your content. Beyond that, marketers need to stop thinking about how to trick search engines, and start thinking about how to delight users.
Don’t waste time trying to keep up with every tweak made by collective brain power of the world’s best and brightest – get the basics right and then focus on your customer. If what you do is in their best interests, if you’re genuinely adding value with everything you do, then you can be sure the search engines will catch up and reward you handsomely for it.