It’s been a tough few months for Google. There’s been a high level re-shuffle, accusations of theft of search results and a steady growth of complaints about the quality of Google’s organic search product. And if this were not enough, the meteoric growth of Facebook and Twitter are beginning to make Google seem just slightly irrelevant.But Google is not one to be trifled with. It has a way of fighting back and usually with seemingly incremental changes. The most recent of these occurred last week when it started to include social media as ranked results in the Search Engine results page, (AKA SERP). If you’ve been paying attention to your SERP’s over the past year you’ve probably seen twitter results in the page, but they have always have been presented as tweet content aggregated in their own section similar to the way Google presents Local, Image or News results. The difference with this update is that not only is Twitter integrated into the SERP, the tweets now have an real effect on rankings.This example demonstrates how powerful this change is:
Above is the SERP from a search for a site called “No Right Brain Left Behind”. You can see that two of the top five results are attributed to individuals. Not random individuals, but people who happen to be in my Twitter network. Even more important you can see that one of the results is ranked number one, above other Google-based algorithmic “organic” search results.
While visually this is seemingly a small change, the potential here is enormous. Studies have consistently shown that most searchers prefer the top 3 links on a page and generally don’t look beyond the first page for results. So suddenly we are entering an era where critical positions on the search page could be affected by a mere tweet from a friend. Imagine the scenario where searching for anything from a bicycle to a bank to insurance could bring up a friend’s preferred social media links and opinions above Web site links. If that isn’t enough imagine the combined power of word of mouth and high page position that these links will carry.
For the moment, Google is pulling its social results from Twiter, Flickr and Quora. Facebook, the other 800 lb. gorilla, missing from the party. Bing is already incorporating Facebook Likes into its search results and while Google apparently has a deal with Facebook they may still be trying to figure out how to incorporate the firehose of Facebook’s Open Graph into the SERP.
But Google will likely figure it out, and as they do the world of search will become even more complex. Google’s shift to social will help it in its quest for relevancy. More importantly it will help Google in its quest for accuracy against the large content-spam sites such as Associated Content and Demand Media. For marketers and advertisers, Google’s inclusion of social media is a powerful validation of social’s role in defining customer interest and preference. It will mean that we will have to pay more attention to the role social platforms play and be more prepared to accept the transparency that social media will bring. On the other hand, if we can learn to collaborate with customers and help them to tell their stories about brands and experiences we may be able to make search engines become even more valuable tools for marketing.