Since launching in January, Google's awkwardly named Search Plus Your World (SPYW) has begun adding Google+ information to Google search results. This means that if I begin Googling for sunglasses, information from people and brands I follow on Google+ would turn up as part of my search. Personalized search will not only have a huge impact on what products and companies rise to the top of our search results, but also will influence our purchasing decisions. While less than half of people trust search engine results, 90 percent trust recommendations from people they know, according to a Nielsen study.
In an effort to figure out what this all means for content merchandisers and companies that sell products online, I turned to Optify VP of Marketing Anthony Joseph.
Content Ping: I know you've been studying Google Search Plus Your World. What aspect of this new social search function do you find most interesting?
Anthony Joseph: Google Search Plus Your World is an effort to take social networks (specifically Google's +1 network) and integrate it into its universal search results. There are multiple components of Google+ (some features of which resemble features in Twitter, Facebook, and Quora) in search results including personalized results, connections, and results to people who have +1'ed related content pages, and rich data snippets interspersed throughout the SERP (search engine results page).
The most interesting element at this time for me appears to be the People and Pages on Google+ results which are placed in the upper right hand corner, where you normally might see Sponsored Ads results. This "widget" shows you a series of related results for G+ connections that may be relevant, although the topics may be loosely chosen.
Given this apparent relaxation of relevancy, there appears to be an unprecedented opportunity for marketers and businesses to gain access to prime time real estate if they can figure out how to do so, although we're not sure how Google will arbitrate this real estate.
Independent of a specific social search feature or function, I think the bigger story/trend here, is that Google SPYW is a further induction of "social" signals/data into the algorithm and index. Over time, we can expect the engines to get smarter about making recommendations and having people "Like" or +1 products, restaurants, services, sites, etc. – essentially putting their personal stamp of approval on it and providing social validation for various items.
Social search is one of these major changes, and has incredible potential in terms of how it helps filter relevant results to the top.
Content Ping: In your view, is this going to revolutionize search?
Anthony Joseph: There are a number of models search engines are experimenting with and they will eventually change the way search is used. Social search is one of these major changes, and has incredible potential in terms of how it helps filter relevant results to the top. Since people in your circles tend to have similar interests and social patterns to you, it's likely that a search for a topical term which has some overlap with them will be relevant to you.
Google's implementation of SPYW continues Google's qualitative input collection mechanism. In some sense, social channels have already been using a form of this type of qualitative mechanism to rate content and pages (e.g Facebook "Likes," Twitter retweets, etc). Generally, the "best" content is already determined by groups of people (whether it's by clicks, bounce rates, inbound links, social mentions, etc). When one person/organization games any of these signals, Google has made it clear that you expect that website's results to be impacted. This is another point of benefit for the integration of search and social media, where inputs from the community help determine what is considered 'good' content.
The challenge with this premise is that in order for the vast majority of results to be truly interesting, you need to have a reasonable depth of data. This means collecting many users and points of personal data (+1s, "Likes", "Shares", etc.) across a broad cross section of topics spanning a number of dimensions including location, time, and category and user connections. While there is a ton of data available for this to work (billions of searches, billions of pages, billions of links), there are not billions of +1 inputs yet from a broad enough cross section of individuals that are connected. Until the sheer number of people that are using personalized search grows significantly, the bulk of the insights that come from the massive amount of data already amassed will be difficult to leverage in a high quality user experience.
Content Ping: What does Google Search Plus Your World mean for companies that sell products online?
Anthony Joseph: There is no doubt that the train has left the station and is fast moving with regards to social search. Regardless of whether or not you think it will be meaningful in the short term, it is indeed the most significant change to the user's experience in search in about a year, since Panda 2011, and Google appears to be strongly positioning it.
E-commerce companies like Amazon or Best Buy will need to leverage the vast community to +1 their products, in order to continue to be relevant on Google search.
Companies that sell products online will have to begin to set up the foundational blocks to achieve relevance in this network if they have not already. Google+ is already in search results. There's no doubt that there are other social media signals that will bear on search results over time. Rankings for the prime real estate in SERPs will increasingly become personalized for users.
Google+ users share content with specific circles they control, its unique features like "Hangout" mesh multimedia communication with social interactions, and it's integrated into Google.
The personalization opportunities could be huge for some marketers. For example, by knowing what friends like to watch, digital-content providers could infer what their friends would be likely to watch. Their resulting suggestions could help those users wade through the enormous amount of multimedia choices flooding the web, and possibly help make marketer's jobs of offering more targeted and relevant results and offers to them easier.
Companies should care as G+ influences ranking factors for search. So marketers have to find ways to integrate their products into the G+ social experience. Within G+, product content like recommendations, especially from friends, will be effective in highlighting purchase opportunities for potential customers. Retailers today, unfortunately, cannot offer discounts on G+, but Google will have to listen to the businesses that aim to participate with higher prominence on search results. Google may be forced to shift focus slightly to support businesses' ability to merchandise through the participation of its users (either through new features, that help them better target certain circles of individuals, usable data, or advertising incentives).
Content Ping: Will it have any impact on e-commerce companies such as Amazon or BestBuy.com?
Social signals, and Google + specifically, will increasingly factor into how Google assesses and displays website pages in search results.
Anthony Joseph: Google+ results will likely continue to push organic results lower as it evolves – to accommodate the "+1 results." E-commerce companies like Amazon or Best Buy will need to leverage the vast community to +1 their products, in order to continue to be relevant on Google search. Perhaps incorporate +1'ing into the customer reviews or recommendations feature to make this a seamless for the user providing the input.
Content Ping: Are you recommending that clients who sell products online add Google+ to their social media strategy?
Anthony Joseph: Absolutely. Social signals, and Google + specifically, will increasingly factor into how Google assesses and displays website pages in search results. If Google+ is not part of your strategy today, you risk not having an additional vector of tailwinds helping drive your boat forward in the seas of search engine results.
Create stunning content and share it. This will get you natural links and allow more people to see your content. You'll earn more social votes, amplifying your network reach and increasing your social inputs. This in turn will positively impact your rankings as +1 votes are increasingly factored into search results.
Additionally, there are other benefits to playing in the social sphere:
Online retailers need to recognize that there are two types of shoppers when it comes to online purchasers – those who search, and those who browse. Browsers are more likely to be found on Social Media sites. Browsers also 'tag' what they like. Even if they're not ready to buy, getting their approval (via a +1 vote) is a great way to engage them in your social marketing.
Companies who sell their products and services online need to have an integrated strategy to reach both of these types of buyers and get the benefit that will come from this social integration.
Content Ping: What do you suggest they do?
Search is becoming more integrated with good content, social connections, and personal visibility.
Anthony Joseph: First, decision to participate cannot be devoid of having a clear sense of your strategic goals. Are you using social media to drive awareness, or generate demand? You have to determine this in order to more clearly figure out what goals you're trying to achieve.
Next, set up your Google +1 account, then your business page. Next, add +1 buttons to your content pages, and make it easy for consumers to like or "+1" your content. Continue to apply a sound SEO strategy in parallel (as highlighted here in the Durable Elements of SEO), so that your site and your pages are at a strong baseline to take full benefit of these social signals when they are assessed.
Content Ping: What's next for social search?
Anthony Joseph: It's hard to predict, given the extent of experimentation currently being invested in, but it's not farfetched to expect that more social signals will be incorporated into search, and Google +1 votes are going to have a stronger signal strength on specific search item results. Expect the intersection of personalization to have an interesting and novel effect on the search experience. With the upcoming opportunities for semantic search, expect social and collaborative filtering to be a big input of this.
For example, if 10 people in NY search for "Big Blue," and seven end up clicking on the NY Giant's fan's website, (vs. IBM (Wikipedia) vs. University of Michigan, vs. the 1988 movie vs. a website which contains the term www.bigblue.com in the domain, for example), expect the NY Giants website to show up as the #1 result for the next 10 people in the NY area that search for "Big Blue." This is especially so if there is additional context such as the time of day the user is searching (ie., a couple hours before a big NY Giants game may provide additional relevance for that contextual search).
In the end, it's clear that search is becoming more integrated with good content, social connections, and personal visibility. This has been well in line with our observations as outlined in the changing face of SERPS in the past year. You have to imagine that as the data set of connections grows over time it will become more interesting. Marketers need to begin to prepare for this exponential data explosion now.
Anthony is VP, Marketing & Customer Experience at Optify. He manages the Optify product experience and oversees all marketing and product marketing operations. Anthony has held a number of key product, technology and business leadership positions at Amazon.com, PointCast, Avid, and Digidesign. Outside of work, Anthony volunteers as a youth soccer coach and a youth running coach with a local track club where his four children run circles around him.
He was an MBA candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is a graduate of Middlebury College.