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Social media and SEO

Predicting Google’s Next Move – The Evolving Relationship Between Search and Social

Among the more interesting fields within SEO is that of forecasting, or crystal-balling our way to a prediction about what’s next. Search volume and sales data make it easier to calculate demand for a particular product or service over time, but what about the operational impacts from a change to Google’s algorithms? How do we predict the ways in which the Internet will change, and Google’s all-important weight scales with it?

Some content marketers (including yours truly) have made a living forecasting and interpreting Google’s algorithmic changes, and what they mean tactically for digital marketers. Some have done it better than others.

Especially since the introduction of Google+, digital marketers have attempted to find direct evidence of audience size, and social links’ impact on organic search results. Some have done it considerable length and research.

Unless you read this stuff every day, or have a degree in statistical analysis, drawing your own conclusions about the impact of social content on your search results can be a tenuous affair. Google’s resident mouthpiece on the matter, Matt Cutts, has been on leave since late 2014 after a 15-year post as Google’s head of web spam. Taking his SEO advice at face-value was always an ill-fated choice in my opinion, but he did provide a bit of Google-sourced context for algorithmic changes.

So how do you make decisions and sort out major announcements for how they impact your digital marketing program? Let’s take the example of Google’s recent deal with Twitter as a case study. Two immediate takeaways come to mind:

  1. Digital marketing activity on Twitter immediately carries more weight and value.

    This one is pretty obvious. If the content you produce on Twitter immediately opens itself up to organic search, it means two things. First, the visibility of that content has an entire new channel under which to operate. Second, backlinks generated through Twitter carry more weight for authority generation, because Google has access to them (since 2010, Google has stated that it follows Twitter’s ‘nofollow’ instruction and thus, Twitter content was a closed loop where Google’s search index was concerned) .

  2. Google has less faith in its own social properties, and needs external social-graph data to influence the quality of search results.

    This is the really important bit. To predict any organization’s next future plans, the question you have to ask is: “How do they make money?” The majority of Google’s revenue stream continues to come from Adwords – ads driven mostly by its search properties, Google and Youtube. Thus, in order to foster its revenue stream, Google has to continue to innovate its search product. One of the most surefire ways to do that is to have a direct line to how people share and promote content online, and if they can’t lead that effort with their own social properties, they’ll rely on other strategic partnerships or acquisitions to get the job done.

    Look at the last 5 years of interaction between Google and its social properties. Until 2011, Google had a shorter-lived deal with Twitter to gain access to their data set, right when Google’s own mix of social products were being rethought or scrapped. For another bit of context, look at the social properties that Google has scrapped over the last 6 years:

    2009 – Dodgeball
    2012 – Google WaveGoogle Buzz, and Jaiku
    2013 – Google Latitude
    2014 – Orkut

Since the introduction of Google+, Google has continued to consolidate several products into that central brand. And this year, they’ve made major changes  to the Google+ property, in addition to the Twitter deal.

Enough already, what does it mean?

One thing is abundantly clear about all this activity: Google will increasingly rely on social indicators to qualify search ranking authority. Google+ may not provide all the answers, but given the amount of time, energy, and product consolidation that Google has put into it, don’t expect the platform to disappear overnight.

And for your other social programs? Audience size and engagement on public-facing networks will continue to be important, no matter the causal relationship that search consultants can draw from it. For 2015 however, it’s clear that investment in owned media will have additional cross-channel advantages.