Google Ups the Ante on Being Social

There are plenty of things to be concerned about when it comes to the new “personalized search” features from Google, including the risk that the search giant is waving a red flag in front of antitrust regulators by throwing its weight around. 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 this message, be prepared to see your content suffer.

Just to recap the news, Google launched what it’s calling “Search plus Your World” on Tuesday, 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 is enabled by default.) Although Google seems to have ambitious plans for the feature by calling it “your world,” the results that are highlighted in a search come for the most part 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.

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 into a 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”. A search for the term “cars” will show Google+ pages for brands such as Ferrari (FI:IM) and BMW (BMW:GR), along with the number of Circles they appear in.

Obviously, inside that “juice box” is a place brands are going to want to be. 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 as to 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.)

Engagement Demands an Active Profile

The real lesson for media companies is that whether you want to be a part of Google+ or not—given how much prominence those kinds of results are now getting—you need to consider joining up to make your content more evident when someone conducts a search, as Harvard professor Ben Edelman notes in a post on the changes. It’s 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’s 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, 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. Nor is it enough merely to have one; the search company will likely also look at activity and engagement levels when it comes to ranking results as well, so outlets such as 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 a profile on a network such as Google+, with no real plan 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 than keywords and further SEO strategies. If you take the time to build those relationships, they will have benefits far beyond higher rankings on Google.

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