There are plenty of things to be concerned about when it comes to Google’s new “personalized search” features, including the risk that the search giant is waving a red flag in front of antitrust regulators by throwing its weight around. But for media companies, one of the key facts about this change is that it makes a social-media strategy even more imperative. In some ways, as Jeff Sonderman of the Poynter Institute points out in a blog post, Google has just made social connections and links the new search-engine optimization strategy, whether you like it or not. If you ignore that message, be prepared to see your content suffer.
Just to recap the news, on Tuesday Google launched what it is calling “Search plus your world,” a bid to personalize search results for users who are logged in (the feature can be turned off for those who don’t want it, but it’s enabled by default). Although Google seems to have ambitious plans for the feature by calling it “your world,” for the most part, the results that are highlighted in a search come from Google’s own social network, Google+. They can include links that have gotten a +1 from people in your network, photos that have been uploaded or, in some cases, comments and profile pages.
Google has made social a key ingredient
But that’s not all: As Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land notes in a breakdown of the new features, even when users aren’t logged in with their Google profile, the search results they get will include profiles from prominent Google+ users, companies and celebrities in the spot normally reserved for Google ads (or what TechCrunch blogger and venture capitalist MG Siegler has taken to calling the “Google Juice Box”). So a search for the term “cars” will show Google+ pages for brands like Ferrari and BMW, along with the number of Circles they appear in, as shown in the screenshot below.
Obviously, inside that “juice box” is one place brands are going to want to be, and Google is no doubt counting on that impulse to boost demand for Google+ profiles and other content. That and the fact that Twitter results don’t seem to be as prominent as those from the search giant’s own network — even for terms that suggest a user is looking for a Twitter profile — has raised speculation about whether Google is risking even further attention from antitrust regulators (Google says it would like to include Twitter content but is prevented from doing so by Twitter itself).
Real engagement will mean more than an inactive profile
But the real lesson for media companies is that whether you want to be part of Google+ or not, because the search giant is giving so much prominence to those kinds of results, you need to consider doing so, if only so that your content is more obvious when someone does a search, as Harvard professor Ben Edelman notes in a post on the changes. It is no different from making sure you have keywords and tags and other SEO-friendly tools in place on your stories, but because it’s social it is also a bit more complicated.
Most media outlets — at least those that care about social media or engaging with their readers — should already have some kind of social strategy, whether it’s Twitter accounts for writers or Facebook pages or blogs. Google has now made it at least as important (if not more so) to have a Google+ profile, so that it will show up in search. But it’s not enough to just have one; the search company will likely also be looking at activity and engagement levels when it comes to ranking results as well, so outlets like the New York Times that have a lot of followers and engagement will benefit.
As ProPublica’s social media editor Daniel Victor points out in a post on Google’s changes, just setting up another profile on a network like Google+ with no real plan for how to use it to engage with readers is a waste of time. What the search company’s changes mean (theoretically at least) is that actual relationships with users — in which they decide to share or vote up content — are going to mean as much or more as keywords and other SEO strategies. And if you take the time to build those relationships, they will have benefits far beyond just higher rankings on Google.