Jun 23, 2011

How the Company You Keep Determines the Search Results You See

A blog post titled “Social Annotations in Search: Now your Social Network = Rankings” on SEOMoz yesterday stopped me in my tracks.  The post, authored by SEOMoz chief Rand Fishkin, described in detail how Google uses the activities of the people in our personal social networks to influence the search results we see.

“The socialization of search is more than just Tweeted URLs or Facebook Likes or LinkedIn Shares having a positive first/second-order impact on generic rankings,” Fishkin notes in his post. “It’s about influencing your social graph to see the content you share in their search results.”

Here’s an example.  The first image is my Google SERP, produced when I’m logged into my Google account (click on each to see a larger, clearer version):

Personalized search results from Google for the term "content marketing strategies"

The second image is my SERP for the same search term, produced when I’m logged out:

Results from Google for the same search term, but with personalized results turned off.

As you can see, the results are different.  Content from some colleagues of mine is featured prominently in the first result.   In this case, my friends Vicky and Sean are exerting direct influence over what content I see.

Simply put, search engines are making the assumption that internet searchers would like to see relevant content from people they know – namely, the people they, follow on Twitter and Quora, are friends with on Facebook, share connections on LinkedIn and who populate their address books – and are putting relevant content shared by those people at the top of the search results we each see.

A look at my Google account settings. Google "found" my Quora account and prompts me to add it to my connected accounts.

Google isn’t alone in using the social graph to influence search results.  Facebook and Bing have teamed up and are starting to roll out a variety of features in Bing search results, including the display of relevant items liked by the searcher’s Facebook friends.  The two companies describe their approach as one that adds personal recommendations from people you know to your search results, in order to aid decision making.

Well, this is a bit of a game-changer for brands, in a few different ways.   For anyone concerned with marketing communications and public relations, this is big news.   And for brands, I think the message from the search engines is clear.

1)      Developing credible presences on networks like Twitter and Facebook is now an imperative.

2)      Encouraging employees to build their own professional presences on social networks is officially a very, very good idea.

Back to what the burgeoning influence of the social graph on search results means for communicators.

  • For a savvy media pro, a credible and authentic Twitter presence is the new Rolodex.  A vibrant social presence – in which connections with media, bloggers and analysts are cultivated – can keep one top-of-mind with people who really matter, and can mean your messages – the press releases you tweet, the thoughtful answers you leave on Quora, the content you share across networks – will be seen in your connections’ search results.
  • For brands seeking search engine visibility, the benefits of a robust social presence are clear – developing social connections with stakeholders (journalists, bloggers, customers, employees, etc.)

Something else brands need to consider is the importance of the conversations occurring in social channels.  How people describe, discuss and refer to a brand or industry segment is going to affect search results.  Brands need to monitor social media and stay on top of the ongoing conversation – changes in audience sentiment or vernacular can have a real-time impact on search results, and can also offer a tuned-in brand opportunity to connect and capitalize upon conversation trends.

The underlying trend is a relentless drive toward authenticity by the search engines.  Powered by the sharing and interaction of the social layer, content sharing and the language we each use when we share content are rapidly becoming the equivalents of backlinks and metadata to SEO seven years ago:  these factors play a key role in how search engines evaluate, index and display content in search results.

Within this authenticity trend is another important opportunity for organizations to shape the conversations in the social network, and that is brand journalism. Brands that can identify interesting people and stories within their businesses and tell those stories authentically will be a step ahead of everyone else in the online visibility game.   Content that is interesting and unique captures audience attention, and they are likely to share it with their connections.   Audiences aren’t fooled by puffery, however.  A successful brand publishing strategy absolutely has to make content quality its cornerstone.

Author Sarah Skerik (@sarahskerik) is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

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