Synopsis — A big change is reverberating through the search world – a change that online marketers can no longer afford to ignore or treat as a temporary phenomenon. What is this fundamental change? In his article, “The Big SEO Shift: 3 Ways To Get Ready Today,” author Dan Cristo discusses the increasing shift in how trust is determined by search engines in deciding how to rank and display your content. Using easy-to-understand examples, Dan explains how search engines are shifting their definition of trust signals from links to social intimacy and how this will change the playing field. He follows up with details of three ways that you can prepare for the shift and ensure that you and your clients can prepare and be among those who benefit from early adjustments to the Big SEO Shift.
The Big SEO Shift: 3 Ways To Get Ready Today
Sometimes change can happen abruptly. Other times it occurs more subtly. In fact, if you are not paying attention, change can sneak up on you before you know it. And that’s exactly what is happening in the world of SEO today. A subtle change is taking place that will result in a big shift in SEO strategy.
When a search engine visits a website, it evaluates three main things — how do I find the content, what is the content about, and how trustworthy is the content? And it’s the last element in particular — how it values trust — that is evolving right before our eyes.
Back In The Good Old Days …
For more than 10 years now, links have been the long-standing trust signal for search engines. Google pioneered this model by figuring out that the best search results were web pages that users recognized and trusted. To calculate that initial trust score, Google seeded known authorities such as .gov and .edu sites with a high trust score. If those authoritative domains linked to another web page, a portion of that authority was passed as well, and the receiving page got a bump in trust. This score is known as PageRank, and the idea of calculating trust based solely on domain authority is about to change in a big way.
The New Model: Trust Gained Through Intimacy
In May of 2011, Google submitted a patent to the US patent office regarding social search. The patent detailed how to calculate trust within a social network, and it’s much different than the old authority-based model. The best way to explain this new trust calculation is through an example similar to that used by Google in their patent submission. Imagine you have no Internet access and want to know what a “smartphone” is. You may go to a library and look for a book that talks about smartphones. Once you find the right book, you would trust that the information is accurate (although it maybe a little outdated), simply because you found it in a library. This is exactly how traditional search engines work when they rank web pages, but it isn’t how people look at trust within social networks.
To understand the social trust concept, imagine you live in a village with no Internet connection, and no library either. If you want to know about smartphones, you would probably just ask a friend. If one of your friends gave you what you judge to be a reasonable answer, you would accept it as being true. The difference between this example and the library one is that library books are trustworthy because authors are considered to be experts, and therefore trust is gained through authority. Your friend, on the other hand, is not an expert, but you still trust him, because trust is gained through the intimacy of a relationship.
Get Ready For Two Major Changes In Search Results
Now that we know Google is looking at intimacy as a trust signal in the same way they consider authority to be one, we can anticipate two major changes. Let’s take a look at each.
Change #1: The Impact Of Google+
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, predicted that content shared by individuals online would double every year. So far he has been right, and most of that content sits inside Facebook, far outside Google’s reach. If Google had its way, it would make that content available within its search results. But thanks to the combative relationship the two have, Facebook isn’t sharing any of their precious data with the search giant.
We all know that Google isn’t very good at begging. If they can’t have access to Facebook’s massive content repository and precious friend connections (social graph), they will create their own. And they did just that in June of 2011 with Google+, their very own social network, and the Internet’s only real threat to Facebook.
Google now has unrestricted access to all the content within its network, and they also have a social graph they can use as a trust proxy. The result of this first change is that content from within Google+ will make its way into Google’s search results. This means that conversations, comments, and answers that originated from members within your Google+ circles will start to appear in your Google personalized search results.
Change #2: Paid Links Will Be History
The second major change will impact the link graph. As Google begins to look at social signals such as the +1 button, they enhance their view of your digital identity. If you consistently add a +1 to websites with a liberal viewpoint, Google will assume that you prefer results skewed to liberal views, much in the same way that Pandora tailors what music you hear based on previous songs you’ve liked.
But it won’t stop there. Google also knows what type of sites your connections like based on what they +1 and share. Since trust is transferred through intimacy, if members of your circles +1 or share content similar to the keywords you are searching for, you can expect those publishers to rank higher in your personalized results on Google because of the transferred trust.
How will this trust shift affect the link graph? Google has struggled to get a handle on paid links for years, and social signals may just be the tool it needs to solve the problem. For example, consider a search done today for smartphones. Since the query is so broad, rankings will primarily be decided by inbound links, which can easily be manipulated by paid links. However, what if the links from my socially trusted websites are more heavily weighted than links from my socially untrusted websites? Suddenly, buying links from socially untrusted sites becomes a waste of money.
Taking Action: Three Ways To Get Ready For The Big Shift
When the big shift takes place, SEOs will need to adjust their content strategy, social strategy, and link building strategy. Here are some tips to prepare.
1. Content Strategy — On the social web, it’s not enough to create great content within your own domain. You first need to create a personal identity for your business, which starts with a Google profile for it. Within your content, add a link to wherever your author profile is (normally on your About Us page), using the “rel=author” attribute within the link. Next, place a link on your author page to your Google+ profile using the “rel=me” attribute within the link. Lastly, place a link from your Google+ profile back to your author bio page using the “rel=me” attribute again. Now you have successfully told Google who you are and what content you own.
But don’t just create content within your own website. Start creating content within other social networks like Google+, Twitter, Quora, and Facebook. While Google can’t access most of Facebook’s content, Bing does have access to some. If Bing winds up copying Google’s social trust calculation, you can be sure that they will heavily rely on Facebook’s content and social graph.
2. Social Strategy — After you have created the profiles, start to build out your connections on each network. It is tempting to focus on tons of followers and friends, but it’s not all about quantity — it’s about trust. The deeper you can connect with people, the better. Try to answer questions, share non-promotional links, participate in chats and group discussions, and share your industry knowledge. If all goes well, you’ll start to see people re-share your content, tag you in photos, favorite your tweets, and +1 your content. When this happens, you know you’ve begun to earn their trust.
3. Link Building Strategy — Targeting links from sites with a high PageRank is already a thing of the past, but many SEOs have trouble moving on. They want to believe that links from directories or email outreach will still matter in the future. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that ship has sailed.
The power has shifted to bloggers and influencers. Your link building strategy should now focus on building your digital rolodex of industry VIPs to whom you can continuously give away perks, share news, and ask for feedback on how you can improve. In turn, not only are these VIPs likely to talk about you and link to you directly, but having these VIPs add you to their inner circle will give a strong “trust through intimacy” signal to their well connected audience, helping your content show up higher in the search results.
For those who performed SEO through the PageRank era, we can see that social search is simply a repetition of history, except with the social graph instead of the link graph. This gives experienced SEOs a great opportunity to understand how Google thinks and where they will go. This is our opportunity to jump ahead of the curve and set up our brand and clients for strong SEO success for the next decade.