Google’s +1 Button: Some SEO-Specific Thoughts


Posted by Jonah A. Berger, Senior Specialist, SEO

There’s little question that when it comes to the unpredictable world of online search, it’s not uncommon for Google to be viewed as a big fish swimming in a very small puddle. The omnipresent search engine that’s routinely in the headlines for acquiring or developing the new what’s next—whether it’s directly related to search or not—is in the news again, this time for the unveiling of what it’s calling the “+1 button.”

Initially, the +1 button may conjure up images of Facebook’s “Like” button, which is plastered all over the social networking site, in Bing search results and on millions of Web pages that make up its social graph. But, unlike the “Like” button, early on the +1 button is slated to appear below every search result and alongside each paid ad, which could allow for searchers to share recommendations with people they know and influence click-through rates at the same time. Eventually the plan is to roll out the +1 button to the rest of the Web and its countless number of pages, which means it’s likely to take crowded residence alongside the “Like” button and several other sharing buttons.

The +1 button, according to Google, will also be a ranking signal for natural search results, and when clicked, it will be displayed for the searcher’s own Google network in his or her Google Profile. The catch is that to experience the +1 button in full, searchers must have a public Google Profile. The keyword here is “public” because Google has said that all Profiles will either become public (by at least revealing the account owner’s full name) or be automatically removed July 31, 2011. Searchers who have a Google account but no Google Profile will see the personalized +1s but won’t be able to add them, and those who don’t have a Google Profile or aren’t logged into Google will see aggregated +1 data.

As is concluded later in this document, it’s too early to tell how the +1 button will affect search engine visibility and ranking, or force SEO best practices to change, if at all. Google has a long way to go to establish itself as a viable threat to Facebook’s ever-expanding social community that continues to push the social search and networking envelope into uncharted but still very cloudy territory. If the +1 button doesn’t catch some lightning in a bottle fast, chances are it could falter like some of the other Google social experiments—particularly Wave and Buzz—have in recent memory.

FINDING VALUE IN SOCIAL SEARCH

For the hundreds of millions of Internet users who are familiar with the “Like” button, the +1 Google offering—at least initially—will be hard pressed to generate the oohs and ahhs that the search engine leader is banking on. The +1 button, from what has been reported by several industry websites, appears destined to mirror the “Like” button in some fashion on pages across the Web. When the +1 button is implemented all over the place, it will be positioned among the several other social media buttons (e.g. Twitter, foursquare, Flickr and of course Facebook) that are already taking up precious real estate.

The value of social search and how it can be made most useful to all parties (e.g. searchers, publishers and advertisers) involved remains somewhat of an algorithmic mystery, which leaves search engines and search marketers continually trying to figure out which tactics work and which don’t. One of the primary reasons Google has struggled to perfect social search is that it’s a search engine first and a whirlwind of products, services, tools and unrivaled innovation second. Unlike Facebook, which harnesses its community and abundance of features inside established boundaries, Google has been unable to meld together its network of social connections that includes, among others, Gmail, Google Talk, Google Contacts, Google Reader, Google Maps and YouTube. Whether enough people sign up for Gmail or create a Google Profile or take the time to figure out who’s in their Google social circle remains to be seen as the +1 button is slowly rolled out.

WHY THE +1 BUTTON, WHY NOW

Google’s well-publicized, butting-heads relationship with Facebook hasn’t allowed the search engine to take advantage of the wealth of data and user information Facebook has to offer, especially in regards to the “Like” button, which interestingly enough has landed in the SERPs of top rival Bing. In October 2010, Bing announced a partnership with Facebook that allows the social networking site’s “Likes” to be displayed as “Liked Results” in Bing. In essence, “Liked Results” appear to be strikingly similar to what the +1 button will represent in Google SERPs. In time, both buttons will be linked directly to search results from Web pages and they’ll take into effect a personalized network of contacts to display. A major difference between them, at least early on, is that the +1 button can also be clicked directly in the SERP—both in natural results and alongside paid ads.

Google has been experimenting with making search more social friendly since late 2009, when it introduced its Social Search results that are still in use today. From Twitter to Gmail to chat buddies to Google Reader, when a user is logged into Google and using its search functionality, chances are (depending on their privacy settings) they’ll see traces of their social connections along the way.  But traces might not be enough for Google as social media continues to play a pivotal role in how it influences searchers and other Web users. A Harris Poll conducted in April 2010 asked more than 2100 adults (aged 18+) how social media influences their decision making when it comes to sharing personal information, expressing their preferences, using a particular company, brand or product, etc. The results indicate that nearly half of those polled—about 45 percent—say reviews from friends or people they follow on social networking sites influence them either a great deal or a fair amount. Also, nearly two in five online adults (38 percent) aim to influence others when expressing their preferences online. Potential customers like these need to be better targeted and understood by search marketers, their clients and search engines in social environments so they can influence and be influenced by those around them. 

HOW THE +1 BUTTON MAY AFFECT YOUR SITE – OR NOT

As with any new Google update, it’s important to let the dust settle before you make any changes to your site or redirect the path your SEO engagement is currently on. The Google +1 button could be here today and gone tomorrow, so it’s critical to practice patience while keeping an eye on site visibility, ranking, traffic and other important data.

Sign up to be notified when the +1 button is available for your site
Initially, the +1 button will only be displayed on SERPs and next to paid ads. Google will let site owners know by email (likely in a matter of months after the release) when the +1 button for websites is available.

Measure the results in months, not days
Effective SEO takes time because search engines are constantly crawling, indexing and ranking sites that regularly create content and have their link portfolios enhanced. Since the effect that social search factors have in relation to the algorithm is unknown, it’s hard to tell what factors may directly contribute to ranking increases or decreases. Over time, it’s possible that several months of data could help shed some light on what—if any—value the +1 button has added to your site.

Get to know your target audience
The +1 button will only appear in English searches for now, but Google says more languages will be added in the future. Before turning your attention to social search and a signal like the +1 button, ask yourself this: How can my target audience best benefit from this? There’s a big difference between a 17-year-old girl who’s interested in buying a pair of shoes and a 54-year-old man who’s searching for a car insurance quote. There are many internal and external factors (think content your write and content generated by users) needed to form a lively social environment and if you don’t know who’s in that environment or how to interact with them, your messages and efforts can be lost.

Think natural, think paid
Remember, the +1 button will automatically be injected into paid ads. As a bonus, it has also been reported that Google is using a common infrastructure for the +1 button on both the paid and natural sides, meaning that if you +1 a natural result that later becomes a paid search ad, that +1 will carry over. Also, If your site is running a paid search campaign, it’s important for your search agency/internal team to look for a positive correlation between paid and natural. For example, if a page that’s being targeted in paid listings garners several +1 button clicks in a short amount of time, that page may need to be the focus of future SEO efforts as well.

Boost your social media presence
The better your social media presence, the better your chances are to take advantage of social signals. Regardless of whether or not the +1 button becomes a relevant ranking signal, it’s important to make sure you’re doing everything you can to promote your brand across powerful, real-time social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The timeliness of your response and how you engage with your customers and potential customers go a long way toward helping create an online community that all participants can benefit from.

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