What if Google Changed the SERP and No One Cared?


(thanks chad burgess for the image)

This is upon review, a somewhat scatterbrained “brain dump” type of post without any particular point; please, if this is your first visit, read something else too before you leave. I’m usually more coherent/less ranty :)

I think those of us in the search marketing field tend to live in a sort of echo chamber- personally, I follow many, many blogs in the SEO and social media spaces and I can see where that echo chamber comes from- many of the articles that purport to be original content are either critiques, summaries or rehashes of something the author read somewhere else, or something someone else read and wrote about that they are now reacting to their reaction; which doesn’t add a ton of value to the discourse. That’s never been more evident than over the past couple of days with Google announcing first Google Search Plus Your World, and now today the announcement of their new, all-Google-service-encompassing Terms of Service. Biting the hand that feeds them seems to be a very common activity among those doing SEO- whole blogs, personalities and memes have sprung up that have used “ripping on Google” to build their reputations, and indeed a whole cottage industry complaining every time the big G does something that could be considered against their best interest. Usually these criticisms are couched in nebulous language about Google not “serving the User”- but at the end of the day, it’s Google who gets to decide how to serve the User, because it’s their free to use, free to take or leave service. If they somehow close some loophole you’ve been exploiting because that’s the game you’re choosing to play, you’re being frankly ridiculous to cry about it. I still really hate the image of SEO as something shady or underhanded or unethical- I was on a forum today where “SEO” was used as a noun to describe a bad SERP. It doesn’t have to be that way but the behavior associated with that image has to stop to affect any sort of change.

A lot has been made of Google’s original mission statement which was “don’t be evil”. In fact, a bookmarklet for Google Chrome called “Don’t Be Evil” which serves results that don’t implicitly favor Google’s properties was recently released in what, I feel, is the ultimate expression of sour grapes. Why the heck wouldn’t Google want to favor its own properties? How is it that people can just complain about Google being unfair because they got in and fine tuned and monetized the search space first and now they can’t compete? Microsoft is sort of gamely hanging on until someone invents an alternative to Office, Apple might as well be Jesus’ second coming (moral imperatives aside, I probably shouldn’t post that link because I have no idea if my Android phone isn’t made in the same damn factory) at least to shareholders- the point is, things change and Google won’t remain the king of the mountain forever. This reminds me of a situation with one of my favorite video game developers, Valve- they gave an interview a long time back where they explained that they thought that “taking control away from the player is a bad design decision”- I’m paraphrasing; but they were talking about how to effectively show the action that moves the story along  to the player in a 1st person shooter, without having to take control away from the player, to ensure that the player actually sees that big expensive set piece. Then, years later, in Team Fortress 2, some design decisions were made to give the User a weapon that could freeze another player in place. People absolutely howled, posting that 5-year-old statement over and over as evidence of why Valve was breaking their own design spec. However, the original statement was never supposed to apply to this kind of design. I think people get similarly hung up on “don’t be evil”- but that doesn’t mean “give the competition an advantage because they wouldn’t agree to share data because you have a dominant product”.

Here’s the thing about Google Search Plus Your World- most people don’t even know it exists, and if they do, most of them won’t care. Don’t think that the echo chamber in the online marketing space means that the average User shares that sentiment. There’s a lot of real strong sentiment out there about Google’s recent changes, and how they are a monopoly (they aren’t, just because they got their first and did it better doesn’t mean that Search is now a scarce resource) and how they’re evil, and how they are cannibalizing Twitter and Facebook’s traffic. Let’s not forget that those other services are the ones that don’t want to give Google access to their data! So why does Google have to go out of their way to be inclusive of their competition in search results? As I read it, Twitter and Facebook didn’t want to make deals with Google- so why does everyone insist that Google isn’t playing fair?

Let’s take the example that’s been floating around of searching for a celebrity’s Twitter account. In a lot of cases, looking for ‘Britney Spears Twitter’ brings up Spears’ Google+ page, instead of her Twitter account. My guess is that Google will argue the searchers’ intent was to find social media information about Britney Spears and as such a fully filled out Google+ profile page- including a link to the Twitter account- best serves the User’s intent. Think that’s a fudge or a waffle or there’s something vaguely wrong with it? So what? Google’s not allowed to leverage its competitive advantage? I don’t understand that mindset, that someone did something first or better and now they have to level the playing field for everyone else.

At the end of the day, Google has deep pockets and G+ isn’t going anywhere. The only way to make a difference is to use a different search engine, and Google is still the best at what they do- they just get picked on a lot because they’re top dog- remind you of any current political transpirings?

Also, as I’m fond of reminding anyone who asks- YOU CAN TURN IT OFF!

Getting Your Business On Google+

There’s been a lot of hubbub around Google+ since they opened the service to Businesses and Brands on November 7th. There have also been a lot of people claiming to have the secret sauce to making an amazing Google+ business page- after a week? However, the information I am about to present here- a companion piece to my “Google Plus for Publishers” post- is straight from the horse’s (Android’s?) mouth.

First, a brief update on the status of the service. Google+ so far has 40 million Users, about 100 days after launch. The “+” button is being shown over 5 billion times a day to Users on over 1 million sites. There’s still quite a ways to go to catch up to Facebook, but clearly the reports of Google+ being D.O.A. are just opportunistic rants from people with something to gain. The way that + ties in with search is absolutely crucial to successful marketing on the Internet moving forward. Google has made the statement that social is a “core human behavior and not a destination”- that’s a pretty clear signal as to the importance of social.

Google states that Google+ allows you to get closer to customers by having conversations with the right people, inspiring existing customers to recommend new customers, and improving ad performance (through the addition of +1 annotations on the SERP) across all initiatives, not just social initiatives. The annotations are the biggest reason I see right now to adopt +1 on all pages on your site as well as Google+, as the personalized annotations have already shown to increase click through rates on both organic and paid listings.

Top global brands that have already jumped on the G+ bandwagon include:

Toyota                  ABC News           Kia                          Dell

Orange                 Piaget                   Macy’s                  Pepsi

Burberry              DC Comics           T Mobile              L’Oreal

NBC News           Amazon               The New York Times

… and the lists goes on. Clearly, big brands, which already enjoy some special treatment on Google, are eager to jump on this one.

Basics- Creating your Page

Create your Page

  1. Log into your Gmail account (your personal GMAIL account!) You must opt in to/join Google+ personally before you can create a page for your business.
  2. Go to the Stream page and click on “Create a Google+ page” on the lower right hand side
  3. Start by picking a category:
    • Local business or place- this is the most specific differentiator of the 5, with options to display a local phone number right on the front of the profile.
    • Product or Brand
    • Company institution or organization
    • Arts entertainment or sports
    • Other
  4.  Fill out and then share the page (if it’s ready for consumption)- then you get the “Congratulations” page.
  5. Start to think creatively first, about how to spice up your page- then use the “Edit Profile” button to get cracking! (check out what Red Bull did with their G+ page for inspiration!)
  6. Add photos, write an introduction and add your organization’s contact info and website info. This is basic identity information your customers will see when they visit the page.
  7. CONNECT YOUR WEBSITE using the “widget configurator”- Google will help you make a badge that will connect your G+ account to your website. The configurator generates code that you copy/paste into your site so that Users see the badge. This is also very important to Google identifying your page as the “official” page! Another added benefit is that Users will be able to add you to their circles using the badge- without needing to click through to the G+ page to do so.
  8. Toggle between you and your businesses’ identity using the pick list that appears under your avatar at the top left hand side of the page to post as either yourself, or the owner of the page. Be careful who you are posting “as”!

Sharing: Build Connections

You can’t add people who haven’t opted in to follow your brand (by adding you to one or more of their Circles) until they add you first. This is a key differentiator between G+ pages for individuals and G+ pages for brands. Once they have added you, ask them what circle they should be in! From there, you can segment them by demographic into circles that you can then produce custom content for. Want a promotion to go out, but only to women? That’s your “Female customers” circle! Want to have a hangout just with guys who ride mountain bikes? Make a circle for that demographic! G+ makes it really easy to get targeted content in front of a highly differentiated audience.

Hangouts:

If you haven’t used a Hangout yet, it’s pretty neat. Basically, it’s a video chat room for up to ten people who have webcams and mics, whereby whoever is talking gets focus in the main window. This allows you to have Hangouts to build a more personal relationship with your customers. You can even limit a particular hangout to a particular circle, to keep the marketing message segmented and targeted to the highest degree.

Promotion: Grow your Audience

  1. “Spread the word”- on the right hand side of the screen that lets you create a message to say hello to the world! Don’t worry about launching with too little content, the content will come.
  2. Add the badge and button to your site so that people are directly connected to G+ through your site and vice versa.
  3. Direct Connect- Use Direct Connect to verify ownership of the official page and improve discoverability by making yours the “official” profile when Users use the + operator. This will allow Users using Search to bypass the search results entirely and be landed right on your site.
  4. ADD THE PLUS ONE BUTTON TO YOUR SITE! +1 annotations are public and drastically increase CTRs. Please see my other post on how to leverage Google +1 on your site for more information.

Google is aiming to make Google Plus the central identity for your brand, with all the social signals (Plus ones) from connected properties ensuring that all the social collateral you’ve built is served to the User when it’s most valuable- on the SERP. For that reason, it’s important to cross-promote and get the word out to fellow employees and friends about the existence of the page.

Tracking: Using the Data

Google Analytics will add segmentation data in the future that will allow you to see data on content that has +1 annotations from associated Users, content that has the generic +1 annotation, and content that has no annotation. Coming soon! Google Ripples will also allow you to see how your content spreads, who the key influencers are, and who they influence. It’s a whole new layer of social data to incorporate and we’ll all have to learn how to best do so.

Common G+ Questions

Can there be multiple administrators on a Google+ page? Multi-admin capability is coming by the end of the year, “transfer ownership” functionality will come with it.

If I choose the wrong category which happens? It’s no big deal…except for “Local”. Only choose that if the focus of your business is a specific service area.

What if you have a franchise with many locations? Start small, fewer pages are better for now- it’s no big deal to set up different pages for different SBUs…eventually Google wants you to have one global identity and use Circles to reach customers in different locales. Err on the side of global creation, but Google might not ever be able to stitch thousands of them into one unique identity.

What’s the relationship between Plus and Places pages? Places and Plus pages are completely different products for now, but should be cross linked.

Can we put messages out to people who haven’t Circled us? You can’t push a message to someone who hasn’t circled you yet but once they have that’s essentially an opt-in to their message so that’s why they do it.

Can hangouts ever go bigger, like crowdcasting? They are limited to just 10 people for now but eventually an “on air” tool might become available.

How do I get my page verified?

  1. Add a badge to your site
  2. Have the rel=publisher code on the pages.

The “verify” checkmark is only in place for spam/abuse reasons. Google is reaching out to brands that are being impersonated or abused (not just one-off satire pages, but widespread abuse) to get them verified. Google decides who gets verified.

Circle limits are 5,000 today but someday it will be bigger.

Pages go live immediately but are not very discoverable at the outset as they don’t have much content.

Can you screen share with hangouts? Only with 3rd party technology, it’s not native to G+ right now

Can you have more than one G+ page with your account? Yes, the current limit is about 20 right now, but it will grow with the advent of multi user support.

+1’s do not affect quality score at the time being but +1’s on domains will affect +1’s on ads in terms of CTR and performance.

Can I restrict a hangout to a certain circle?  Yes, you can have a hangout with just that circle; it’s an option when you Start the hangout.

Google+ Pro Tips

  • LINK YOUR G+ Page to your AdWords Campaign and site!
  • Rich posts work best- include media in the form of images or video.
  • Sign your posts! Put a face on your brand.
  • Ask your community what Circle they want to be in.
  • Make sure to disable comments and re-sharing before you post sensitive topics.
  • Cross promote on other channels; email, social and offline.
  • Share your page! Encourage co-workers to do the same.
  • Use Google+ search to find out what people are saying about your brand.
  • Encourage customers to use branded and non branded hashtags.
  • Make sure you track how +1’s are affecting your AdWords performance.
  • Be flexible and adapt!

Yes, You Will Need a Google Plus Page For Your Business. No, You Don’t Need To Panic.

The cottage industry that has already sprung up in my RSS feeds about people who claim to have the awesomesauce secret for Google Plus profiles for business, or who claim to be Google Plus for business gurus, or are offering a free e-book on how to optimize your company’s Google Plus page is absolutely blowing my mind. THE SERVICE HAS ONLY BEEN LIVE FOR 48 HOURS AT THIS POINT, HOW THE HELL CAN ANYONE BE A “GURU” IN IT? I’ve also seen a number of headlines explaining why Google Plus is going to murder Facebook, and just as many about how Google Plus is D.O.A.

Google Plus is going to be an essential part of any business’ strategy moving forward. I realize that a lot of you are rolling your eyes at this point thinking about another social media service that you’ll have to research, plan and execute a strategy for. Isn’t this just another Facebook? Everyone just uses Facebook, no one uses Google Plus, right? That might be true- for now- but the Google product everyone uses that you SHOULD be concerned about is Google search. Plus is going to tie in intimately with search and as such, if you are ignoring it now, you’re going to be leaving money on the table somewhere down the line.

As I’ve written on this blog before, Bing has already basically stated that Facebook Likes are more important ranking/authority signals to their algorithm than links are. With Google first opening Plus up to everyone last month, and now to Businesses and Brands this month, I can’t help but think they are going in a similar direction- showing the pictures of those that have +1’ed certain pages in the search results leads to a measurable improvement in both click-through rate on the listing and conversion rate of the site they are clicking through to. This is another attempt by the big G to marry search and social and I think this one will succeed where Facebook search has- so far- failed miserably.

Links were originally factored so heavily into Google’s algorithm because they were supposed to be human-agnostic- that is, a wholly democratic and “uninfluenceable by people” algorithm factor. Until Google, pages were essentially assigned authority purely through evaluation of on site factors- but that’s easy to game. So Google, with their ultimate goal being to serve the User, settled on links as a “vote of confidence” in another site. Their logic is that if I link to you, I must think you’re an authority on the topic, and if more people link to you than your competition, that’s a pretty strong signal to the site that you are more authoritative. The problem with this system is that it’s relatively easy to game links.

Enter the link builder. This insidious SEO worker’s only job is to try to game Google’s algorithm by securing links back to a website at any cost. It doesn’t matter if you do bulk directory submissions or straight up buy sidebar links from a company like TLA or TLB- the goal of the link builder is to get back links, and serving the User valuable content to do so isn’t a link builder’s focus. So what has this led to? It’s led to India-hosted directory sites and networks of sites where you can get 10,000 back links overnight for very little money. They don’t usually adevertise the crappiness of these links, which frequently sit several clicks deep off of a marginally popular home page. See how easy it is to game links? Ask some of those “pro link builders” how many sites they’ve worked on that have been kicked out of the index. My squeaky-clean white hat SEO has worked for over 100 campaigns and I’ve never had anyone booted out of the index…food for thought.

Now, enter social media. Yes, it can be gamed as well. I can go to Mechanical Turk right now and buy 1,000 +1’s for my clients’ pages for very little money, the problem is, there’s no value to that because it’s a lot harder to game a social media site than it is to set up a link directory and start charging. Google forces people to use real names on the + profile pages and not pseudonyms because they want a +1 to mean something- a +1 means I, personally, like the resource, not that someone contacted me for $50 a month to host a sidebar link back to their site.

For now, it’s enough to claim your Google plus page, and watch this space for more recommendations on what to do with it. When you do create your profile, bear in mind that Business pages on Google Plus can only have one administrator for now, so don’t leave it up to the social media intern to create your businesses’ page. That task should fall to the Social Media Manager, failing that, whoever runs the company Facebook or Twitter page.

Social is the future of SEO; people. I would not be surprised at all if within a year, +1’s are as important or more important to Google’s algo than links are, and in 5 years social signals may have supplanted link signals entirely.

What do you think?

 

Google +1 For Publishers- Nine Tips For An Easy Win!

Google +1 logo

Google +1, in conjunction with Google Plus, presents an interesting opportunity for publishers.  Direct social integration isn’t something the Big G has tried before (outside of the recently-expired deal with Twitter to show real-time results on the SERPS), but they are giving us plenty of information on how to integrate +1 for some easy wins.  Here are the nine biggest takeaways:

1.  The value is in the annotation. The true value of +1 becomes evident after using it for a while with all of your connected accounts. It’s an easy, shorthand way to see what those you already trust- based on the fact that you’ve connected with them on other social services- think will help you. I make it a habit personally to +1 any helpful search results because hey, I must know what’s the most relevant result, right? Right!

2.  This is a high value, low effort strategy for SEO that incorporates social media too. Google has provided a wealth of information on +1, including all of the code you need to include to start tracking +1’s on your pages. +1 code is right here, it takes very little time to implement and quickly leverages the power of social media to promote your properties to those you’re connected to, and encourages them to share with their extended networks as well.

3. Make sure +1 is on the page too, because most users won’t click back to the SERP to +1 your page. It’s easy enough to +1  a link on the search engine results page, however, most Users will want to see if the site is useful first. To make sure they don’t have to backtrack to the SERP to +1 your page, ensure that all pages include their own +1 button.  This ensures your pages get all the credit they deserve!

4.  All +1’s, regardless of location- PPC ad, page, SERP- all count towards the same attribution. This will allow you to track User behavior- are they +1ing your PPC ads? Your pages? Posts? Directories? SERP listings? By attributing +1’s in different places to an associated URL, you get an aggregate over all of your channels.

5.  Use rel=canonical to make sure that the right page gets the credit. Perhaps you have a product that’s available in many colors and sizes.  This usually leads to a duplicate content problem, with the paginated pages containing the same content as the “base” page.  Make sure to use the rel=canonical attribute to tell search engines which page should get the juice if, for example, a User hits the +1 button on the 17th page of results served after a search.

6.  +1 has to be on public, crawlable URLs. Don’t bang your head on the wall if you implement +1 on a staging server and can’t see the results in tracking.  +1 only works on publicly available and crawlable pages.

7.  Set individual +1s on each article, and place buttons near the actual content you want shared. If you have multiple posts on a page, multiple products or reviews, or several areas of content on the page a User might want to share, make sure that you are placing the +1 button near the content you want shared- this ensures that the User knows what they are +1ing and that other Users aren’t mislead by their +1ing the “wrong” page.

8. Write copy on why to +1 as this helps people use it. Tell your Users why they should +1 your content! A compelling call to action will increase your POR (Plus One Rate- I just made that up! :) )

9.Don’t buy +1’s! But you can use them to “doorway” content. You are not allowed to buy or offer product in exchange for +1’s.  However, you can get creative- place half the article on the page, for example, and tie the User’s use of +1 to reveal the second half of the content, or have navigation that’s partially obscured until the User +1’s the page.  Be creative, here- there are lots of ways to encourage +1’s without breaking the TOS.

Enjoy! I have a long list of +1’s already and I look forward to adding it in the future.  I find the feature especially helpful when searching Google for an unfamiliar topic- it’s nice to see what my friends think will help, right on the SERP!