A Brief History of Relevance and PopularityBack in the early 90s, search engines primarily used on-page content to determine the relevancy of results. This made it pretty easy to manipulate rankings, just repeatedly throw some important keywords on your homepage and you’d start ranking. In 1998, two Stanford grad students turned the search engine industry on its head by using inbound links as the primary method for determining relevance and popularity. The idea being that it requires a human to build a link, thus making it much harder to manipulate rankings.
Just a little school project called Google.With this change the quality of search results went through the roof. Of course, throughout the years, some devious webmasters have tried (and to a certain extent succeeded) to manipulate rankings through link building. But along the way search engines have started to include more and more factors that help improve the quality of search results. Google now boasts over 200 elements that go into their ranking algorithm. Today, manipulative link building is nearly as prevalent as manipulating keywords was in the 90s. Search engines are now looking for the next big factor that will improve quality in the same way that inbound linking did when Google first arrived on the scene. The answer may lie in social media.
The Rise of Social SearchIn the late 90s, it took a human to build a link. That’s not the case anymore, but for the most part it does take a human to “Like”, “Share”, “+1” or “retweet” something. This same information can be used to determine the authority of an individual user, so a share from Guy Kawasaki is way more valuable than a share from me. Looking at signals from social media provides that human touch required for high quality results. The last round of search engine ranking research done by SEOmoz shows a very strong correlation between social factors and high rankings. Remember, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. These numbers don’t mean that getting a ton of Facebook shares will automatically shoot you to the top. It could just mean pages that rank well tend to get a lot of Facebook shares.
R.I.P. Google Buzz…This research was completed waaaaay back in 2011 – a lifetime in search engine years. Back then, social signals’ impact was only implied in search results. Now it’s stated outright. Bing has a direct relationship with Facebook, and Google went as far as building their own social network. Google went on to release an awkwardly branded program called “Search Plus Your World” (sometimes abbreviated to SPYW or Search+) which integrates data from Google+ with their search platform. With the addition of Search+, Google was hoping that they would become the one place you turned to for all the information in your life, from restaurant recommendations to family photos. Personally, I think they took it a step too far. When I search for “Koopa”, I expect to find information on Super Mario Bros. – I don’t need Google to show me pictures of my pet turtle too.
Aww, he used to be so cute!Despite my personal reservations, Search+ isn’t going anywhere and social signals in search engine ranking algorithms will only be getting stronger. The SEO community often talks about “future proofing” your SEO – planning ahead for potential algorithm changes from Google in the future. For now, a major part of future proofing means socializing your business.