How not to optimise your showing on Google

As the world’s dominant search engine starts playing favourites in the race for prominence on its results pages, company web managers will miss a trick if they don’t play the game, Rob Curran says.

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Google launched a controversial new product mid-way through January that has ruffled the feathers of Twitter and Facebook, and got technology journalists either heralding the end of search engine optimisation or warning web managers they could be missing the opportunity of a lifetime. Some of this excitement is justified, some not, but some of the changes Google is making to its search engine have significant implications for anyone in charge of a company, brand or corporate website.

‘Social search’ catch up

The controversy stems from Google’s attempts to enter the world of ‘social search’. The idea behind this is that people are increasingly looking to their friends and families for recommendations about films, restaurants, cars, hotels or almost anything. They used to do this in person, or by phone, e-mail or text. Now they can do it by Facebook, and there is an increasing belief that it is the way search should work.
This raises a host of questions about whether social search is relevant for all or even most searches – it cuts out the whole world of business-to-business, for example. Nevertheless Google has decided this is a bandwagon onto which it must leap. CEO Larry Page has put ‘social’ at the peak of the company’s agenda.
Social search does, however, make Google’s stated task of ‘organising the world’s information’ much more difficult. It has always tried to use its search engine to direct users towards the websites that are most relevant to their search query. But to get to grips with the social search problem, it appears willing to sacrifice the quality of its search engine algorithms.

Facebook face off

The first part of its solution appeared in June 2011, with the launch of Google+, a product that allowed Google to enter Facebook’s world of profile pictures, updates and photo sharing. Google’s plan since the beginning has been to integrate Google+ with other products such as Gmail, Google Reader, YouTube and, most importantly, search. As we noted in a recent column, ‘What to make of Google+’, Google+ has the potential to be much than a social network – it could even, at an extreme, come to rival corporate websites.
We also said “traffic from around the web is being gently nudged towards Google+ profiles and posts”. The launch of the unfortunately named ‘Search plus Your World’ (SPYW) marked the latest nudge and was a significant move to integrate Google+ into search. Now whenever you search with Google, you will see Google+ posts and profiles mixed in with the other organic results. That’s a big step. It means some searches will now offer personalised results above the ones formerly accepted as the ‘most relevant’. It means also that instead of Google doing what it normally does, (i.e. directing you away from the Google website and towards others) it has started pointing you towards Google content, with Google+ pages being the intended destination.

Focus shift

The move begs an important question: Is Google a search engine pointing to the most relevant pages, or is it now a content company pointing towards its own pages? The line has certainly been blurred. The SPYW product also signifies a change of Google’s main focus. In response to the growing trend, the company is focusing less on improving algorithmic search and more on letting social aspects define results. In doing so, it has seized an opportunity to promote its own social network in the hope of gaining some ground on Twitter and Facebook.
Google does offer a choice between social (SPYW) or non-social search. But if the focus is taken off improving algorithms, for how long can Google keep its lead in pure search technology?

Results premium

The real world effects are significant, even for users who are not signed into their Google accounts. For example, searching for ‘cars’ now returns the normal organic results, but with an additional panel on the right-hand side that prominently displays relevant automotive brands – but only if they have a profile on Google+.
Search Plus Your World gives highly preferential treatment to Google+ content over Twitter and Facebook accounts. Many searches for companies now return Google+ pages above links to Twitter and Facebook profiles. This even occurs when the Twitter or Facebook profile is more popular than the Google+ page. For example, searching for AT&T puts the company’s Google+ page well above its Twitter and Facebook pages – even though just under 10,000 people have AT&T in their Google+ ‘circles’, while the equivalent ‘like’ number for Facebook is 1.8 million.
This makes having and maintaining a company Google+ page important: if a company doesn’t have one, it won’t be highlighted in that hallowed right-hand panel. The result? If your company is on Google+, then Google is treating you like royalty in its search results. But popular on Facebook? Or have an established or burgeoning Twitter following? Tough, you’ll have to take a back seat for now.

Critical stand off

Google is facing a lot of criticism for prioritising Google+ pages so strongly. The US Federal Trade Commission has extended its investigation into Google’s use of its dominant position in the market to include Google+. The criticism (and the fact that Twitter and Facebook are so angry about the change) means that the current situation may not last for ever.
(Might there also be some friction within Google Towers? If I were responsible there for promoting sponsored keyword search – the group’s big earner – I might look askance at a rival product that so firmly tried to push mine down the screen.)
At the same time, is Google also leaving itself open to competition from more powerful ‘pure’ searches? As noted in our earlier comment, there is a strong logic in Google promoting Google+, but if it is doing so at the expense of its other products (keywords) and, most importantly, pure usefulness, it could be shooting itself in the foot.
For now, though, if web managers are not on Google+, they are most likely missing out on a peculiarly large opportunity to benefit from Google’s vanity and appear high in search results. Google’s favouritism towards its own social network presents a clear incentive to start participating in Google+. And those already with profiles there find themselves in very agreeable positions on Google’s results pages.

First published 25 January, 2012
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