The Future of Search & Social

Ever wonder what’s behind the merging of social signals into search?  Not too long ago, all SEOs had to worry about were the old standbys: title tags, links, content, etc.  Today, and in the future, social signals play a larger part in ranking, so what’s an SEO to do?

Why it’s happening

This is fairly easy to explain.  While most folks like to point to the rise of Facebook and Twitter (and other social sources) and say their growth has forced search to integrate social signals, the deeper answer is based in more mundane science.  Psychology.

Most savvy marketers are keen observers of human nature and behavior.  The search engines are no different.  We watch what people do and see if those behaviors will lead us to understand search patterns on a deeper level.  With so many people sharing so much about themselves socially, it was inevitable that we’d be able to use this data to help us refine search results.

Look further, though, and you’ll see that beyond sharing more about themselves, people use social connectivity to help them make decisions.  Most people, for example, will hold off on making an online purchase until they’ve “talked to a friend”.  Think of your own actions.  When finding a great deal on something online, do you immediately take out your credit card, or do you bounce the idea off someone first?  While the answer is largely dependent on a bunch of factors, larger purchases fall into the category of “bouncing off a friend”.

Now, what if, while you’re performing those searchers, and finding the results, your friends were along for the ride?  What if you could see in real time their thoughts on the subject?  This is part of the reason why you see Facebook results inside the Bing SERP results.  Helping you complete your task faster means bringing your friends along while you search, effectively giving you their vote on any topic in real time.  This can have a big impact on whether you purchase something now, or wait until talking with someone.

Keep in mind these examples tend to work when generalized across many, many searchers.  There will always be exceptions to this thinking, and I’ll submit that most in the search industry fall into the exception category.  We tend to search differently than your average citizen.

Another example of social supporting search is the refinement of crowd-sourced opinions.  Today it’s much easier to see the accumulated results of “likes” and “tweets” as they pile up the numbers, indicating a kind of popularity.  Even those new to a topic can see that an article with 100,000 likes must have something going for it.

And while the obvious, visual signals of this popularity may come and go in the SERP results, the effect of those gains in exposure certainly can influence how an item ranks.  Given no other signals for a new piece of content, a strong social signal can help your item get noticed and possibly take an early lead in rankings, allowing other signals to accumulate and either support or refute the assigned rankings.  That’s right, just like a big hit of social exposure can help you rank, a lackluster result can leave us wondering if you should be ranking. 

This doesn’t mean you need to panic if every tweet or post doesn’t suddenly go viral.  There’s also the long term effect of interacting with your followers, the links they spread on your behalf, the consistency you show and so on.  And let’s not forget that there are still a ton of other factors to weight in before you’re ranked, so don’t sweat the slow starters.

What to do

Be engaged.  Easy to say; time consuming, all-encompassing and life altering to put into action.  The simple truth is that if you want to get the most out of social and the benefits it can have on search, you need to invest in it.  You need to build a relationship with followers where you deliver quality items to them, and they remain loyal to you because you’re the best.  No easy task, as you’re going to need to experiment with topics, post types, link structure, time of day, day of week, tone, the type of hook you use and so on (ego, humor, controversy, etc.).

This is not something that happens overnight, so as you’ve heard so many times, create a plan.  Execute that plan and stick to it for a while.  If you are diligent, you will build a social following and become a resource to those following you.  What a good example of how to get it right?  Guy Kawasaki nails it time and again.  Short, simple, catchy tweets.  Each with a link to highly interesting, useful items.  He runs an 8 hour cycle, ensuring 3 tweets a day for each item, which means pretty much everyone has a chance to see his posts at least once.  He has a team that helps him manage this, but the path is pretty clear and the results speak for themselves.

The benefits are many

It’s easy to rat-hole and get stuck thinking SEO, 24/7.  How does social benefit my SEO work?  It’s important work, though you should approach social with a broader view.  Social can help the engines find your content; it can spread links to your content widely.  It can encourage followers to build actual links to your content, which directly helps your SEO efforts.  And beyond all of that, let’s not forget that social can drive a lot of direct traffic to your website under the right circumstances.

On top of all that, there’s the longer term, more subtle benefits of how you or your business is perceived.  As you grow that social footprint and prove to followers that you are a go-to resource that word spreads to others who may never have heard of you.  Friends love to tell friends about cool, new, useful things they find online.  Get your social program right and that cool, new, useful thing they share could just be you.

It’s easy to see why social factors into the world of search so heavily.  And this trend will continue as the next generation of socially-savvy users are poised to share even more information online that we ever did.  This will lead to more refined search results, greater personal relevancy and searchers finding what they want faster.  Social is here to stay for all the right reasons.

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