White paper: Why search marketers need to think about Google+ even if it's a ghost town

Digital marketing agency SiteVisibility has produced a white paper on how best to use Google+ as marketers. Here, Kelvin Newman, SiteVisibility’s director of strategy, explains why overlooking opportunities on the platform could see a business fall behind competitors who are making the most of these growing social spaces.

Almost a year since the release of Google+ to the public, there has been a variety of discussions about the health and success of the network. Some claim it’s been a huge success, while others think that the service equates more to a failure like Buzz than a success like Gmail. For SEOs, it doesn’t matter.It’s hard to argue that the site is the runaway success the team at Mountain View might have hoped for. However there is no question that it is a viable service and one which I fully expect to continue to rise in popularity and importance to marketers – especially if you’re interested in performing better in the natural search results. It’s the worst kept secret that Google wants to better integrate social signals into its algorithms to help reflect who is ‘socially significant’. Google either doesn’t have much access to other big social networks data or if it does, it’s paying through the nose for it.So it’s no big surprise one of the reasons many companies are investing time and effort into Google+ is the expectation that it is already having an influence on the natural search results, or will in the future. As more people share content on social networks it becomes a better indicator of the ‘best’ content the search engines want to return. In fact there have already been a number of studies which seem to suggest that social signals such as ‘tweets of links or likes of a page’ are correlated with high rankings. Two of the most well-known studies from SEOmoz and SearchMetrics are keen to point out that this correlation does not mean there is a causal relationship, i.e. pages with good social signals may not rank highly simply because of their social signals. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is the fact that Facebook ‘Likes’ have been found to correlate well with rankings despite Google having no authorised way of accessing this data, and therefore it is unlikely to be using it to determine rank. However the relationship between the two data points is still very significant and if it’s a metric which indicates ‘high quality’ it’s one the search engines will look to integrate into their algorithm. The understanding that social signals already have a healthy relationship with rankings makes the argument to invest in Google+ much stronger. We know the relationship is there, and we know Google has the best access to their own social network, so it makes sense they’ll look there first when considering social signals.Even if the social signals are perhaps not directly influencing results at the moment, there’s already a strong precedent of social signals indirectly influencing your natural search through personalisation based upon your social connections. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in the US where Google has rolled out what is known as Search Plus Your World which explicitly pulls in search results based upon who you are connected to in the social networks that Google has access to.This dramatic change in how search results are ranked hasn’t rolled out yet in the UK or Europe, but social signals are already influencing what appears when you make a search and therefore strengthens the case that your SEO and social campaigns need to be working in harmony.So we can see the potential influence of Plus, but what do we do about it? Firstly, avoid the temptation to go out and buy social signals or votes. It’s unlikely to have any impact in the short-term and in the future you’ll regret it. I know a number of large brands who have tried to actively reduce the number of people who have liked them on Facebook, as those they bought in the past are now making their social engagement look a little weak. If they’d stuck just to ‘real likes’ they’d have much better numbers.In the same way not all links are created equal, nor will social signals. A link from the BBC is more valuable than a link from hobbyist’s blog; it’s sensible to assume some social signals will be more powerful than others. So hundreds or thousands of social votes from weak accounts that will shill their social capital to the highest bidder are not going to transfer a huge amount of ranking value. Instead, what I think you should do is understand which pages and pieces of content are being shared on social networks and do more of the same. Also use a tool like Social Crawlytics to get a sense of what assets being built by your competitors are getting picked up socially. Learn from their successes and work those findings into a content strategy. In the same way you’ll assess the results of a piece of content by looking how many views it has on YouTube or views on Google Analytics, you should be reporting on the number and quality of social shares. This might not be a report you present to the board but this will be data which you can act upon, and allow you to adapt your strategy accordingly.The challenge is not how can I get my content social signals; rather how can I get content that gets social signals?

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