In the history of search engine optimization the rank of a piece of content in search engine results has typically come down to two key drivers: relevancy and authority. Relevancy is all about using the right keywords in your headlines, sub-headlines and anchor text to match what people are searching for online. Authority has predominantly been defined by the number and type of sites that are linking to your content via inbound links. Pretty standard stuff, right?
Well recently, things have changed a bit. More and more, search engines have begun to incorporate social context into their search results. And it's high time we dive into what role social context is playing in SEO, and how marketers can adjust their strategies to match the changing character of search. So without further ado, let's get into the nitty gritty of what's being called "social search" and learn how it affects marketers.
What is Social Search?
"Social search" is an evolving term for the way in which search engines factor a user's social network -- also referred to as social graph -- into how results are displayed after a search query. In social search, content that has a social connection to you in some way is prioritized. A social connection could mean someone you are linked to via Facebook, Twitter, or any other major social network. Alternately, some forms of social search prioritize content that has been shared by social media influencers, even if those experts aren't directly tied to you.
Examples of Social Search
Google Plus Your World
In early 2012, Google unveiled Google Plus Your World, a unique integration between Google search results and the Google Plus social network that, when activated, prioritizes content that has been shared or received a +1 by your Google network. In addition to Google Plus Your World, Google social search results from multiple networks are now mixed throughout your results based on their relevance; and content with ties to your network are displayed with a higher relevance than their counterparts. Searchers only see social search results when they are logged into Google and have their social networks connected.
This promotional video from Google walks you through how Google Plus Your World works if you'd like to hear it from the horse's mouth.
Bing Social Search
This summer, Bing announced a new version of its search engine. It included an entirely new layout that closely integrates a searcher's social network into the results displayed for a given search term. According to Bing, the social results -- which include the ability to directly ask advice from your Facebook network -- "complement the standard search results without compromising them, offering you the chance to start a conversation and get advice from your friends, experts and enthusiasts right within the search experience."
Here's a promotional video from Bing that explains their version of social search:
In addition to the new social search view, which already incorporates Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and Foursquare into results, Bing has just announced a strategic partnership with Klout, a service which tracks and provides a numerical representation of an individual's overall social media influence. The partnership will surface highly-ranked influencers on a given search term and include them in the "People Who Know" column to the right of social search results. For example, when I search "Inbound Marketing" on Bing I see examples of my peers and colleagues in the "Friends Who Know" section and examples of other experts I may not be connected to in the "People Who Know" section, along with their Klout Data
Facebook Social Search
This fall, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated that he is interested in launching a social search engine powered by Facebook user activity. He explained, "Search engines are really evolving towards giving you a set of answers… like, I have a specific question, answer this question for me. And when you think about it from that perspective, Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer a lot of the questions that people have."
According to Zuckerberg, Facebook handles close to 1 billion search queries per day already. Many of these searches are for individuals or company pages, but the potential exists for inquiries related to decision-making or reviews.
Social Search and Inbound Marketing
Even if the social search playing field hasn't been completely defined yet, one of the key takeaways from the early actions of Google, Bing, and Facebook is that as marketers, we need to start seeing our search engine optimization strategy and our social media strategy as utterly intertwined. Here's how you can do just that.
Step 1: Make sure your social media tools are informed by your SEO tools.
The best way to come out on top of social search is to have a fully integrated marketing platform where social media and SEO are fully linked.
Truly though, having a blog with built-in social sharing and as-you-type SEO recommendations definitely helps. With or without that kind of technology, however, there are some steps you can take to leverage the growing use of social search.
Audit your existing strengths: Take a look at your top ranking and most shared content. Is there overlap? If you've found a type of content that is simultaneously strong in search and frequently shared, it's worth optimizing that content even further.
Update your company profiles to be keyword-rich: If, as in the example above, I search Bing for "Inbound Marketing," a few things will happen. 1) Bing will give me traditional search results. 2) Bing will show me friends who have written or shared "inbound marketing" content. 3) Bing will bring in "People Who Know" who include the keyword "inbound marketing" in their profile or frequently shared content. For the latter circumstance, it doesn't hurt to put your main keywords as part of your company's profile online. The combination of that profile and the strength of your content and shares will add up.
Make your top keywords more social: Make a list of the keywords for which you want to rank highly. Does the content you share on social media and your blog cover those keywords? Zero in on one or two of your most desirable keywords and find ways to make content under those keywords more shareable. At a bare minimum, include social sharing buttons on your content. Beyond that you may want to experiment with encouraging social sharing through pay-by-tweet downloads or using easy share links throughout your posts, like in this example.
Step 2: Find and encourage your social media influencers.
The reason social is such a natural extension of search is that it adds both relevancy and authority. Think about this: According to Nielsen Research92% of consumers worldwide trust recommendations from friends and family more than any form of advertising. This is up from 74% in 2007. As recommendations from peers become more prominent online, the influence they levy will weigh more heavily into activity on search and social sites combined. For this reason, it's wise to start thinking of your company or organization's fans as extensions of your inbound marketing team.
Find your influencers: Spend some time to get to know the people who consistently share your content. Pull together a list of contacts with more than a thousand followers and a history of engagement in your content. Knowing your social media influencers will help you expand your reach online and ultimately increase the rate at which your content gets found online.
Nurture your influencers: Once you've discovered your evangelists, think about ways to nurture and encourage them. At the simplest (and possibly most meaningful) level, find a way to thank them for spreading the word about your company. As a second step, consider inviting them to a special open-house or providing them sneak peeks of upcoming news or announcements. (Note: Be careful when nurturing your influencers that you are not offering them benefits in exchange for talking about your company. That's not inboundy at all and really questionable, ethically. In fact, in some cases, it may even be illegal.)
(Above: A search for HubSpot's social media influencers)
Step 3: Watch for changing factors in social search.
While there are a few core principles at work in social search, individual factors will continue to develop in the near future. As you're considering the social channels you use, think about the role each plays in your search engine of choice.
Don't rule out Google+: When Google+ first entered the social media space, many marketers wondered if it was really worth diverting marketing attention into yet another social network. Forbes magazine's Paul Tassi even wrote it in a eulogy last year. But when the parent company of said social network is the biggest search engine in the world and starts to integrate its content into search results, it's worth dipping a toe in the water. My advice? Take these quick steps to create and optimize your Google+ page and then experiment with how content does on it.
Don't rule out Bing: Not only did Bing account for 30% of all searches this spring (Source: Experian), Bing also has a more diverse social search offering than any other search engine. With Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Klout and Foursquare tied in, Bing may give social active companies an edge.
Keep your Facebook pages active: While search is clearly not Facebook's primary purpose yet, Facebook does have a team of engineers, including former Google engineer Lars Rasmussen, working on an improved search engine for the site. There's a tremendous opportunity for Facebook to delve deeper into search. There's also tremendous opportunity for businesses to grow their reach through Facebook. My colleague Amanda Sibley just finished a top-notch eBook on attracting customers through Facebook that could be a good starting point.
Step 4: Remember the golden rule.
Years ago, when HubSpot first started teaching people about search engine optimization, one rule was essential: Above all else, create good, useful content. The rest will follow. From Panda to mobile, search has changed quite a bit in the last few years, but that cardinal rule has held strong.
Even with the rapidly growing influence social sharing has on search results, the good news is if you're creating good content, you're already half-way there. Useful content is by nature more search-friendly than sales-oriented content. It is also more likely to be shared. The increasingly formal relationship between search and social is really just a natural extension to what has always been true -- content that is relevant and can be trusted as authoritative will continue to drive both your search and social media marketing.
How well are your search and social media integrated? Where do you see the future of social search headed?