If you’re marketing websites, scary as it may sound, you need to learn about social media.
So what changed?
Even before Panda and Penguin, how Google determined the relevancy of any given web page was changing. Traditionally, the main relevancy signals that search engines looked at were:
Trust and authority
With minor changes, Google still looks at on-page factors and the trust / authority of pages similarly to how they always have. But links are a different story. As part of Google’s original algorithm (and what made it such a great search engine), they treated links as a vote of confidence for a page. Their PageRank algorithm was and still is sophisticated enough to also understand that not all links are created equal. Google is able to consider the importance of the page that a link is on to decide how much credit (or credibility) that link should pass to the page it’s linking to.
And this worked fairly well for quite a while.
But website owners being greedy and SEOs being…well…SEOs, links became a commodity to be bought and sold in order to provide higher rankings for web pages. One consequence of that was the scarcity of people linking to stuff they liked just because they liked it. Links pages that most websites used to have in order to provide additional resources for their site visitors are now thought of as “spammy” and rarely exist anymore. Sure, bloggers might still mention other sites that they like and even provide links to them, but many blog platforms automatically add the NoFollow attribute to those links, causing them to not be counted by Google. Plus, bloggers also understand the value of a link and don’t always disclose whether any money or gifts exchanged hands.
Beyond the gaming of links, however, the trouble with counting links as votes is that not everyone has a website or a blog. How do you count the votes of the average teenager or mom or business manager?
This is where social media comes into play.
It’s simple. Anyone can quickly and easily tweet, Facebook, Google+, Reddit, or Yelp their opinions about anything and everything.
With the ability to discuss news articles, blog posts, websites, business establishments, brands, universities, restaurants, and just life in general at the tip of the average person’s fingertips, it would be ridiculous for search engines not to pay attention.
This is why my 2008 quote is even truer today than it was when I wrote it. If you’re marketing a business, having a strong social media presence is no longer optional. It is essential.
But just like links, not all social media signals or mentions are created equal. Don’t think that you can just create social media accounts, hook them up to the RSS feeds of your content and be done with it. The social media links back to your content (which generally have the NoFollow attribute on them) won’t provide any sort of signal to Google unless you truly participate.
If you want your “vote” to count in social media, here are a few tips you need to remember:
Be selective in whom you follow.
If you follow back everyone who follows you, your profiles will be less likely to be trusted. Just as Google’s PageRank algorithm can determine trustworthy pages based on who links to them, Google can also determine trustworthy social media accounts in the same way. If you’re following spambots, you’re not paying attention. And if you’re not paying attention, why should Google trust you?
Be selective in what you recommend.
If you tweet or retweet low-quality content (be it your own or others’) it’s going to be noticed. Perhaps not by Google, but certainly by authority accounts who might otherwise have followed you. Which leads me to the next tip:
Your accounts must be followed by other authorities in your space.
Authorities don’t get to be authorities by following just anyone. They pick and choose based on who they themselves feel are qualified and trustworthy. Therefore, if other highly trustworthy people follow you, there’s a good chance you’re trustworthy as well.
Have a byline and use Rel=Author on all your content.
It’s imperative to associate a name and face with all of the content on your website these days, in order to ensure that Google knows it’s trustworthy. If you haven’t already, get your site up to speed with the Google Authorship program as soon as possible.
Install Twitter Card code on your content pages.
If your target audience is on Twitter, you should definitely be participating there. And if you are, then you also need to add the Twitter Card code to your site. This adds more information and images to any content that you or others promote from your site. Right now, Twitter Cards give you a huge advantage over your competitors who aren’t yet using it (it’s fairly new). If you use WordPress, I highly recommend the Yoast WordPress SEO Plugin for this feature as well as the Rel=Author attribute mentioned above (and lots of other features as well!).
While it can take a lot of time to build up trustworthy social media profiles, in the long run it will be well worth it. Think about it. If your profiles are considered trustworthy, then every piece of content you mention will surely have a better chance of being noticed by Google. Of course, your mention alone isn’t going to provide much weight, especially if you’re talking about your own content. But if other trustworthy social media profiles are also citing that same content, you can be certain that it will be a very strong signal to Google.
Now, I can’t tell you with 100% certainty that this is what Google is doing today. But if they’re not, surely they will be very soon. In fact, in Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts’ latest Webmaster Video, “What should we expect in the next few months in terms of SEO for Google?,” he said that they were “working on a completely different system that does more sophisticated link analysis.”
Feel free to draw your own conclusion as to what that means!
Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen
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I’m always fascinated by stories about what women in the gaming and animation industry do. (My 16 year old grandchild wants to have a career in the field.) Here’s an interview with Brave Shading Art Director Tia Kratter.
“As usual, there was no source that gives clear, concise, accurate information about the three syntaxes and the four rendering engines, so I decided to write it myself.” Quirksmode has a compatibiity table and an explanation of what’s going on with gradient CSS.
By now you’ve heard the news that a few of the major SEO tool companies will no longer be providing ranking reports as part of the website data they supply. While you are probably still in shock and scrambling to figure out what to do about it, if you’re serious about your online marketing, it’s actually the best thing that could happen to you.
Now you can start focusing on stuff that matters.
I’m pretty sure I just heard a collective:
“But I need to know my keyword rankings!”
No, you don’t!
I’m not going to lie to you. Obviously, there’s a correlation between having a high ranking for a high-volume keyword phrase and having that phrase bring you search engine traffic. But whether or not you know what that ranking is doesn’t stop you from receiving that traffic.
There’s no such thing as a ranking
The fact of the matter is that for many years there’s been no such thing as “a ranking.” Oh, sure, there’s the ranking that a keyword had when someone clicked to a page of your site, but just because that page showed up #1 or #2 or #10 for one person doesn’t mean that anyone else saw your page in the same position in the search results. Someone else may have not seen your page show up at all.
Ranking reports can only tell you what position your page was in for a keyword phrase at the exact moment that the bot checked the rankings — and still it was only the ranking for that particular bot. While you might think that at least whatever the bot shows you can give you some idea of where you rank for that phrase for most people, even that may or may not be true.
Search results are highly personalized
Nobody using Google these days has a clean browser with no cookies set and no historical searches. (Well, nobody but SEOs who are trying to check rankings!) So even if you think you’re getting a clean ranking, your target users (those you want to buy your stuff) aren’t. There’s a good chance they’re seeing very different results from the bot than someone with a cleaned-up browser.
Your target audience is going to see pages from websites that Google thinks they specifically want to see. There are many things that can affect this, such as:
Past search history
Social media circles / friends / followers
And who knows what else?
Think about this: If your target audience is usually logged into their Google accounts and use a lot of Google services, there’s no end to what Google knows about them. It certainly makes sense that Google would use this information to personalize their search results. These days Google often knows about the words contained in emails, voice messages, information related to purchases, and travel. For those with Android phones, Google likely knows even more than all that. They may know where you go every day (based on GPS) and how often you go to certain places. My Google phone thinks that my daily “commute” is at 7 p.m. when most nights I head to my local bar! (I know this because a Google Now card shows up each evening telling me what the traffic will be to get there.)
As scary as this all sounds from a privacy aspect, the point is that in addition to what they’ve been previously using to personalize results, Google is gathering more information on people every day. They will most certainly be using it to try to show each individual searcher the best search results for them. The more people who use Google products, and the better that Google’s personalized algorithms get, the more the search results will vary for everyone.
Every website contains an unlimited pool of keywords
If none of that persuades you to stop thinking that you need to run ranking reports, then think about this: Most websites get found and clicked on in Google and other search engines for thousands, if not tens or even hundreds of thousands of different keyword phrases. While you may have your list of a hundred phrases that you think are important to you, even if you could know where those particular ones rank for most people (which we’ve already established you can’t), it doesn’t tell you anything about the other hundred thousand keyword phrases that are or might be bringing you actual targeted visitors.
Today’s SEO isn’t about optimizing for a handful of keyword phrases (or even a hundred). It’s about having amazing content that fulfills some need of your target audience. It’s about figuring out what that searcher on the other side of Google is seeking. They may have a question they want answered, or a desire to purchase a specific product, or a need for information. If there are pages on your website that very specifically provide that information in a way that is different or better than other sites, Google will want to show those pages to that searcher.
But every searcher is different and every searcher uses different search queries to find what they’re looking for. While you can research keywords and pretty easily find those that get lots of searches, that only tells you a piece of the story. Those high-volume keyword phrases will also have thousands of variations that get searched upon — many of which don’t even show up in keyword research tools. Even if you could predict all the hundreds of thousands of keyword phrases that somehow relate to your website, what good would it do you to check where you rank for them? They may or may not bring you targeted visitors.
Rankings don’t equal traffic and sales
When high rankings — rather than satisfying the needs of your target audience — is your goal, you’re on a fool’s errand. Rankings give you a false sense of security that distracts your focus away from the things that do matter: gaining more targeted visitors and converting them into customers (or whatever your conversions might be). Rankings don’t tell you which keywords people actually came into your site for, and which ones really matter. And rankings don’t tell you what content on your site is satisfying your target market.
Automated rank checking could cause Google penalties
If all of the above doesn’t convince you that you really and truly don’t need to run ranking reports to do SEO and measure your success, then think about this: Scraping Google to check rankings is against Google’s terms of service. While they have been lax about penalizing for this in recent years, the fact that they’ve started putting real pressure on companies to stop doing it tells me that they’re serious about enforcing their TOS. Which means it’s possible that they may also penalize those websites that do a lot of automated rank checking for their websites.
Penalties of that nature are something that Google has definitely done in the past when they could be sure that the rank checking was being done by the site owner. Plus, lately I’ve been seeing a correlation between sites that have been hit by Panda or Penguin and the sites running ranking reports on a regular basis. Now, correlation is certainly not causation. And the types of people doing automated rankings checks are usually doing other SEO type things, so I wouldn’t say for sure that they’re related.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if it caused some sort of red flag to be raised with Google — one that may cause them to take an even closer look at a website. I’d personally be very nervous about setting up an account with any SEO tool provider who decides to blatantly disregard Google’s new warnings about scraping the search results. Google is obviously very serious about it now. They may even decide that the best way to get the message out is to start directly penalizing all the sites that continue to run automated ranking reports.
Google search results have changed if you search for a person by name. Here’s an example, using Elisa Camahort Page as the guinea pig. (I thought about using myself, but Google recognizes me and urges me to complete my profile. Someone else is a better example.)
You have two views, with personal results showing, and with personal results hidden. If the person has a profile on Google+, the personal results are from their Google profile. Here are views of Elisa Camahort Page with and without personal results.
You can see that the personal results are something like a social media result rather than a search result. The top search result is BlogHer either way, but the next results are different with and without personal results.
How about a celebrity? I searched on actor and artist Laurel Holloman, who does not have a Google+ profile or her own web site. Her personal results came from Wikipedia, followed by IMDB. There were lots of images and mention of her movies and TV shows.
Google wasn’t just linking to every web page that mentioned either Elisa or Laurel. It was providing results that were rather intelligent in that they related specifically to the person. Out of all the web pages, in all the world, where the two of them might be mentioned and indexed, it picked really relevant results and images.
I know you’ve Googled your own name in the past; do it again now and take a look at the difference in what you see. It isn’t just a million links in willy-nilly order. It’s an intelligent collection of links that tell a lot about you in the first page of results. Big Brother is watching.