You may have heard about Google’s launch of Search Plus Your World last week, which sent spasms of outrage, delight and fear through the online marketing world. Or you may not have. Australian Google users aren’t yet affected by this controversial new update to Google’s search results, which is currently in the middle of a global rollout.
When Search+ (let’s call it that for short) does hit your Internet in the very near future, though, you’ll probably sit up and take notice. Google’s SERP layout has never looked anything like this. Google’s algorithm has never pulled information like this. This Google is a new, strange (and possibly antitrust law violating – but we’ll get to that later) beast.
What is Google Search Plus Your World?
Here’s the official line from Google about what Search+ is and the benefits it’s meant to offer:
We’re transforming Google into a search engine that understands not only content, but also people and relationships. We began this transformation with Social Search, and today we’re taking another big step in this direction by introducing three new features:
1. Personal Results, which enable you to find information just for you, such as Google+ photos and posts—both your own and those shared specifically with you, that only you will be able to see on your results page;
2. Profiles in Search, both in autocomplete and results, which enable you to immediately find people you’re close to or might be interested in following; and,
3. People and Pages, which help you find people profiles and Google+ pages related to a specific topic or area of interest, and enable you to follow them with just a few clicks. Because behind most every query is a community.
Sounds simple enough, but there are two glaring caveats. First, you need to be signed up for Google Plus (abbreviated to G+), the social network Google introduced in June last year, for Search+ to start working. (At least for now; my bet’s that Google is already working on ways to get around this and deliver Search+ results to people who point blank refuse to sign up for yet another social network.) “Start working” being the operative phrase: early reports from SEO legend Danny Sullivan and others reveal that once activated, Search+ still promotes results from the G+ network if users are signed out. And not necessarily results that users have any current affiliation with (more on this later).
Second – and this is the one that really has search marketing and competition law experts in an uproar – the social results are almost all pulled from the G+ network. Flickr and a few other smaller networks get a look in, but Facebook and Twitter are left out completely. Google claims the omissions are due to Facebook and Twitter not giving it permission to use their data; Google critics claim that the search engine giant is unfairly promoting its own products ahead of more relevant search results. The United States Federal Trade Commission, already investigating Google for alleged antitrust practices, has added that complaint to the list.
While this nuances of this debate are fascinating to those of the online marketing geek persuasion (e.g. me), I’ll leave that alone for now and focus on the really important questions: How will Google Search Plus Your World affect you? And how should you prepare to play nicely with it?
These are questions that merit two sets of answers: one for when you’re using Search+ as an individual consumer, and another for when you’re considering it from an online business perspective.
How Search Plus Affects Individuals and Businesses
A bit of background: Search+ relies heavily on the information contained within your Google Account. When you browse the Internet while logged into any Google service such as Gmail, Google collects data about the sites you visit and uses it to personalise your experience. If you’re into cars, for instance, you’re more likely to get results about cars than cats for the search [jaguar]. You’ll also see a different range of ads than people who are bicycle enthusiasts.
Google has been personalising search results in some way or another since 2005, and universally since 2009 (even when not logged into a Google Account, by using data stored in your browser’s web history). Unless you get weirded out by the Big Brother-esque privacy aspect (yes, Google is watching you), personalised search is a good thing because it usually makes finding what you’re looking for easier.
Now, with Search+, “personalised search” takes on a whole new meaning. Probably “socialised search” would be the better way to describe it. Instead of search results taken only from the open web, Search+ gives you a mash-up of results from both the open web and results that have been shared with or recommended to you by people in your G+ network.
Since this isn’t working in for users in Australia just yet, I’m using these screenshots posted by Google Fellow Amit Singhal to illustrate what Search+ results look like:
This search, performed for [chikoo], displays a few of the changes you can expect from Search+. The red arrow points out 50 personal results from Singhal’s social networks, while the green arrow shows where he can toggle between personal results and results from the open web. The yellow arrow highlights the image results for [chikoo], which is the name of both Singhal’s dog and a type of fruit. These show some online pictures of Singhal’s dog that he posted online himself, and others posted by his wife and shared with him via G+. These take precedence over the fruit images.
As an individual: I think this will improve my search experience in the long term. I’ll especially enjoy seeing recommendations from my friends about restaurants, books and TV series I should check out. In the short term, though, I expect my Search+ results will probably get mucked up with various irrelevance from acquaintances in my G+ network. Just because I G+ connected with someone I met in a Thai backpacker bar, does not mean I’ll find his views on the share market to be qualified or valuable. While Search+ allows you to switch off results from individual G+ connections, the fact that this requires manual effort and some familiarity with using the G+ interface will be intensely annoying to some people. Indeed, many would prefer to be able to opt in to the Search+ way of doing things, instead of having to research how to opt out.
As a business owner: Damn. I need to set up a G+ profile page for my business, link it to my website, and learn how to use it so people will share my content with their networks. Annoying because I already have a Facebook page and more people use Facebook than G+, but Google is pretty much forcing my hand here. If my competitors are using G+ and I’m not, they’re going to start showing up in Google more than me – even to searchers who are signed out. This is no longer about social visibility, but search visibility.
Next up, we have Singhal performing a search for a friend with a common name, Ben Smith. Singhal and Smith are connected on G+, so Smith’s G+ user profile is suggested by Google’s autocomplete algorithm. If Singhal does complete the search for Ben Smith, he’ll only get information about that particular Ben Smith (made possible through Google’s recent introduction of authorship markup).As an individual: This could be useful, if I had two friends or followed news about two people with the same name. The drawback is that both those people would need to set up G+ profiles in order for it be very effective.
As a business owner: I look at how prominent the Ben Smith profile is both the autocomplete search box and in the results themselves – another reason the antitrust watchdogs are up in arms about Google pushing its own products ahead of everything else – and realise that I need an active personal profile on G+ as well. Every time I make a blog post, I want Google to know about it and attribute it to my G+ profile. That way, the people in my G+ network can easily find it and share it with the people in their networks. Even more than that, having both a business and a personal profile linked to my website will increase the “social relevancy signals” being sent to Google, which will in turn increase my chances of appearing in Search+ results. And after seeing the examples of Google favouring G+ pages over regular web pages, I’m not taking any chances.
Lastly, here’s a section of Singhal’s Search+ results page for [music], showing the G+ profiles of prominent musicians. He has not added them to his G+ circles (adding to circles = the G+ equivalent of liking or following on Facebook), but Search+ is suggesting he should, and gives him the option to do so straight from the search results.
As an individual: Okay, this one annoys me a bit. The term [music] is much too broad to justify returning something as insanely specific as the names of three popular artists. I suppose the logic is sound enough from a “socialised search” point of view: Britney Spears’ profile is popular. Over 1.1 million people have “encircled” her. The part that I find offputting is that this is so obviously a huge ad campaign to get more people on the G+ network, complete with a call to action: “Learn how you could appear here too”. It’s even smack bang in the top right of the SERP – exactly where we’re used to seeing Google AdWords ads. Not that I mind ads so much – it just seems brazen of Google to try to pass off their ads as genuinely relevant search results.
As a business owner: If I had an AdWords campaign running I’d be pretty worried by this screenshot. This is the right hand side of the screen, but the space traditionally reserved for AdWords ads has been usurped by this giant G+ ad. The fact that Google is sacrificing what probably amounts to millions in ad revenue to push their social network is another sign I shouldn’t take it lightly. This set of results for [music] is just the tip of the iceberg: right now Google’s ad campaign is leveraging pop culture icons to entice more people to use G+, and once that’s achieved, it makes sense they might start showcasing G+ profiles for searches that are less mainstream than [music] … such as the keywords I’m targeting in my SEO campaign. It will probably be on a smaller scale, with AdWords ads returning to the SERP after the initial G+ marketing blitz – or it may not occur at all. But even if it doesn’t, with Search+ set to strike Australia any day now, I’d be stupid to ignore G+.
While there is a lot more information about G+ and Search+ that I haven’t touched on, I hope this post has provided a useful overview, whether you are reading as an individual consumer or an online business manager. If you’re interested in learning how to use G+, I recommend going straight to the source and let Google show you the way.