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Why Social Finally Works With Search




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"Why would I want to see what my Facebook friends "liked" or "shared" in my Google results?"

"Who cares whether my website has fewer +1s than the next guy if I have better content?"

"Tweets shouldn’t pass PageRank – what the heck does a Tweet tell me about whether a result answers my query?" 

Yeah, yeah. I’ve been there, too. I’ve heard and given every excuse in the book about why social data in search results is a poor user experience, a mistake from a relevancy perspective and opens the door to manipulation and gaming even more so than the much-maligned link graph. But in the last 12 months, I’ve had to swallow my pride and accept that social media is not only here to stay, but massively useful to improving search engine results. It’s been fun to bash on social the last half-decade, and with products like Google Buzz and Yahoo! 360, there’s been no shortage of targets, but the times, they are a-changing.

Why Does Social Finally Work with Search?

In my opinion, there are two major drivers.

First, it’s critical mass. More than 10% of web users in the US actively use Twitter (more than 25% of us have accounts, but the majority go unused). More than 80% actively use Facebook. Blogs are consumed and commented on by 80%+ as well. 44 million people in the US and over 100 million worldwide have LinkedIn profiles. Social is popular, useful and used and it’s no longer dominated by early adopters. Chances are good you have a grandparent with two or more social accounts of one variety or another.

Second, it’s (finally) been successfully productized into search. The first real success, in my opinion, belongs to Google’s "results from my social circle," e.g.

Social Circle Results in Google

Those two search results from Techipedia and OutSpokenMedia wouldn’t normally appear in the top 10, but because I’m connected to Rhea Dryesdale and Tamar Weinberg via Flickr, I see the content they’ve shared. More importantly, those results are actually better than anything else on the first page of results for my query.

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The Integration of Search + Social Has Changed Marketing

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that, because we haven’t seen the entire story, a major shift hasn’t happened – it has. If your job involves social media marketing, you have to be familiar with SEO best practices and techniques or you risk losing out on the relatively higher-value traffic driven by Google + Bing. If you do SEO, likewise, social media is now a major opportunity to market your content and make it more visible in the search engines.

Correlation of Social Media Signals Controlling for Links

Given the correlation numbers (remember, correlation ≠ causation), we know that sites and pages that perform successfully in social media tend to perform well in Google. If we’re not learning and leveraging social as much as we have historically with links + content, we’re likely doing our businesses (or those of our clients) a disservice. It may be that today, exact match anchor text links from a few dozen unique domains will provide more benefit than a few hundred shares on Facebook or Tweets on Twitter, but given the historical perspective of the past year, I’m not sure how much longer we can count on that being true.

What’s Coming Next

Three startup-based products have really given me a sense for where search+social can really go. I think it’s unlikely that all three of these particular companies will succeed and become the next Google/Facebook, but I do believe it’s incredibly likely that features similar to these will find their way (in some form or another) into broad use by the engines+social sites.

#1 – Hunch

Hunch

Hunch maps things I like with things I’ll probably like based on an analysis of their "opinion graph" of data across tens of thousands of users. The more people I connect with and the more things I rate, the better Hunch’s predictions become. Thus, I can run searches across broad product groups and discover userful answers, something that just isn’t possible with Google or Bing today (e.g. try searching for "movies i’d want to watch").

The combination of social data and recommendation layering with non-traditional search functions (like discovery), make Hunch an exciting technology. Even if they don’t make it all the way, I strongly suspect their intuition and progress will be picked up by a larger player in the space and turned into an exceptional product. Netflix already does this in their specific vertical – Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, et al. can’t be far behind.

#2 – Trunkly

Trunkly

Possibly my most regularly used new tool in 2011, Trunk.ly is a lifesaver. It automatically indexes everything I tweet or share on any of my social networks and builds a personalized search engine so I can find stuff I’ve lost. It also has the very cool ability to let me follow the links shared by others and search those sources, too. If you’ve ever found yourself in a position of wanting to dig up that link from a few days ago but can’t recall where you saw it, Trunkly’s amazing. It’s surprisingly useful for raw discovery as well – browsing through the links shared by those I follow, I find tons of cool stuff.

#3 – Summify

Summify

My latest love is Summify, a tool that lets me connect my Twitter and/or Facebook accounts, then finds stories shared by multiples of my contacts and delivers a good-looking, daily digest to my inbox. It’s the new "StumbleUpon" – and the big innovation is that it’s passive. I don’t need to do anything active to get the best of what my contacts find and share straight in my email. Social + discovery + automated filtering/curation = awesome.


Personally, I love what search + social have done for me as a web user. The Internet feels more addictive, more interactive, more useful and I get the sense that I can better communicate with others, rather than merely broadcast. However, I’m keenly aware that privacy issues, regulation, potential missteps by the big players and possible cultural backlashes from users are all risks to this evolution.

I can say with certainty, though, that it’s far more enjoyable and profitable to be a marketer in a more complex, nuanced and opportunity-laden environment than a static, single-entity dominated field. My heart goes out to those poor marketers in the 1950s – just imagine only having radio, newspaper, magazines, outdoor, television, movies and word-of-mouth in your arsenal… so limiting.

Rand Fishkin is the CEO & Co-Founder of the web’s most popular SEO Software provider; SEOmoz. He co-authored the Art of SEO from O’Reilly Media and was named on the 40 Under 40 List and 30 Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs Under 30. Rand has been written about in The Seattle Times, Newsweek and PC World among others and keynoted conferences on search around the world. He’s particularly passionate about the SEOmoz blog, read by tens of thousands of search professionals each day. In his miniscule spare time, Rand enjoys the company of his amazing wife, whose serendipitous travel blog chronicles their journeys.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/website-internet-marketing.htm Nick Stamoulis

    Summify sounds like an incredibly useful tool. It looks like a great way to corral interesting links and stories that I know I’d be interested in. It seems likes it’s building on the idea of peer recommendation, and finds things that many of my connections have shared.

  • http://www.italiaseo.net Gianluca

    Summify is incredible as you can add also your Google Reader Feed.
    It is like receiving your own personally crafted Sunday Edition of the New York Times. The only problem is to find the time to really go trough all that information :D.

    Trunk.ly, on the other hand, is really a time saver, as is really my “link bank”: all the piece of content I do really care about are stored there. And surely the internal search function is something that will get better.

  • http://www.searchblogger.co.uk Jamie Fairbairn

    This is a thought-provoking post and it will be fascinating to see how search develops in tandem with social over the coming years.

    Thanks for sharing these three new sites – I hadn’t heard of them before but I’ll definitely be taking a look.

  • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

    Gotta say that it is great to have someone like Rand Fishkin giving his POV here at Marketing Pilgrim.

    We always feel that our readers deserve the best the industry has to offer and today it’s safe to say that we delivered!

    Thanks, Rand!

  • http://summify.com/ Cristian Strat

    Great post, Rand! And thanks for mentioning Summify!

    Trunk.ly looks really promising, I’m going to give it a try.