By adaptive - March 19th, 2012

[C]orporations have worked hard to develop their SEO to the point where they can positively affect their ranking on Google. With the advent of social media and the plethora of new links back to the...

Corporations have worked hard to develop their SEO to the point where they can positively affect their ranking on Google. With the advent of social media and the plethora of new links back to their websites, is this affecting how SEO is now handled within corporations?

In the early days of the Internet, SEO was a relatively straightforward issue. Earlier search engines looked for information such as links and keywords describing the site and its content. This meant that unscrupulous website owners could, and did, manipulate search results, and one of Google’s strengths, right from the start, was to develop a more complex process of site analysis, which led to a systematic and scientific approach to SEO.

To some extent, responsible – “white hat” – SEO and the major search engines enjoyed an uneasy coexistence. SEO providers want to ensure that their clients achieve positive rankings on search engines; the engines need to ensure that results accurately reflect what users – and advertisers - were looking for.

The situation might have continued along these lines but for the arrival and increasing popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This changed things completely, throwing not so much a spanner into the works as the contents of an entire toolbox.

A major effect on search engines

Even at the simplest level, links to and from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and other social media have a major effect on search engine rankings. As a result, in recent years a social-media presence has become as much part of online marketing as having a dedicated website. Facebook, Twitter – and increasingly – Google+ and LinkedIn buttons are an essential component of business websites and corporate email signatures.

In addition, as Martin Petts of social marketing consultants Social Stamp says, “There can be more links from content about your product, service or company on social media that can lead back to your site making it look more important in the eyes of the search engine.“

Kevin Gralen, CEO of ShopTab, specialists in setting up Facebook shopfronts, agrees that: “social media provides great options for companies to expand their content distribution and client engagement.” He points in particular to YouTube as a way to “drive traffic to your website and impact your search rankings for both high-volume keyword searches or for a long-tail strategy.”

SPYW the latest Google controversy

Fuelling this long-tail strategy has been the recent development of much closer relationships between major search engines and key social media. Google owns YouTube, and last year launched its latest social networking competitor, Google+. Also last year, Bing started to use Facebook content to personalise its searches and – perhaps taking a cue from this – Google has now launched “Search Plus Your World” (SPYW). When a user is logged on to Google – for example, to a Google+ page – data from their account will be used to refine their search results.

SPYW has upset some people, and it has caused a predictable buzz in the Twittersphere: indeed, Twitter issued a statement expressing concern that “as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information [from the millions of tweets sent every day] will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organisations and Twitter users.” That may be the case, but – at the moment anyway – SPYW only works when a user is logged onto their Google account, and if a user doesn’t want search-results slanted in this way, they can log off or (horror of horrors!) close their Google+ account.

Perhaps more importantly, Google has started to include content from business Google+ pages in search results, and ShopTab’s Kevin Gralen thinks that over time “the social engagement around an organization and their content will become a bigger component of the search algorithm since it can be a good indicator of quality.”

The implication is that the lack of a Google+ page will adversely affect search results. SEO specialist Rebecca Hollingsworth of Platinum Digital Marketing thinks that “as Google keeps updating their algorithm, over time it could have a negative effect and it’s best to cover all bases with SEO to make sure you don’t drop in rankings”. Martin Petts of Social Stamp agrees, saying that not having a Google+ page “is definitely going to affect a company's standing in search results” and that “the longer your company does not have a Google+ page, the more your company will lose out. And history has shown us that with these things it always pays to get in early.”

Personalised results: popular, or an intrusion?

So are search-engine users looking for more personalised results, related to their social-media activity? Platinum Marketing’s Rebecca Hollingsworth thinks it will be increasingly popular. “As people want to discover other people’s past experiences with companies via reviews and feedback.” And she suggests that product or service recommendations are preferred to having simple search results. Kevin Gralen of ShopTab agrees, suggesting that “the impact of seeing something like a Google+ mark from a friend next to search results is very compelling. As this begins to scale, it is logical that it will resonate with more users to look for these social cues.”

Martin Petts of Social Stamp is not so sure, and asks “do users really want their search results influenced by their online interests, pages they have viewed before or their friends’ interests and recommendations?” and wonders whether there may be a backlash against what users may see as corrupted search results. On the other hand, he acknowledges that search engines really like the idea, and that businesses “love it” because “it is more likely that this search result impression will convert to a sale.”

The amount of personal information freely given by Facebook, Google+ and Twitter users is immense – and growing. This trend will undoubtedly continue into the future. It’s an invaluable resource, and it will continue to change the face of online searching and e-commerce. Successful online businesses – and SEO specialists – will be those who keep on top of these changes, and react accordingly.

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