Social media is by no means a new thing; blogs, forums and sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and LinkedIn have been around for a considerable amount of time now and you will have to go quite far to find an internet user who doesn’t have a profile on at least one of these networks. However, the way we look at these sites, and the importance we place on them, is rapidly changing as they become more and more closely associated with search.

The first signs of Google taking social media more seriously came in 2009 when the search giant began buying data from Twitter and indexing tweets in its results. This was seen as Google trying to add a more real time aspect to its search results, but also as a new feature in its search algorithm, taking into account a site’s presence and popularity on the social media site.

This development has seen sites trying to build up strong profiles on both Twitter and Facebook, no longer just in the hopes of creating brand awareness and additional traffic, but also in signalling to Google that they are prominent in this area and so increase their visibility in the search engine.

google plus oneSince the initial deal with Twitter there has been a plethora of rumours regarding Google trying to buy the social media site outright. However, now all eyes are on Google’s own movements in the social media world, with the introduction of Google+1 and Google+.

Google+1 was the first new social introduction this year by the search engine and is basically Google’s version of the Facebook Like button. The Google+1 button appears next to search results, when you are signed into your Google account, and allows you to +1 the results you like and wish to promote. The +1 button is now also available on websites, meaning you can +1 a blog post, image or any other content you like, just as you can Like it.

The +1 feature has been quickly followed up by Google+, a new social network created by the search engine that will be in direct competition with Facebook. Although it is still in its testing phase, we do know that Google+ will work similarly to Facebook, in the sense that you will be able to connect with friends through a personal profile, have groups of friends connected by shared interests and share information with contacts, who you can place in relevant interest circles.

So how will Google + and +1 impact search? Well, we already know that Google’s search algorithm is, to some degree at least, taking into account Tweets and Facebook Likes and promoting sites that have strong profiles on these networks. It therefore stands to reason, that on a very simplistic level, Google+1 will impact the search results in the sense that it will promote sites that have a large amount of +1s as well as Likes and Tweets.

However, this is not to say that this will be the ultimate defining feature of search results, as a site that has no links to their site, copied content on their site and no relevant information is not going to rank 1st just because they have a well maintained profile on Twitter.

Also, I think we can all agree that Google’s social aspect will run much deeper than just bumping up sites that have a lot of +1s and will be more about creating search results that are more useful, relevant and personal to each individual user.

Google has been trying to make search results more personal for some time now, with features such as Google Places, based on where you are when you search, Google Stars, and, more recently, Blocked, which lets you block entire domains from your personal search results.  Both Google+1 and Google+ will continue this aim of making search results as personal as possible to the searcher.

As mentioned, on a basic level a user can simply click +1 on a search result or a piece of content and this will send a signal to Google that the user likes the content and wants to promote it. However, when this is combined with being logged into a Google+ account, where you are connected to friends, family and colleagues, +1 can have a much bigger impact.

If you are logged into Google and are promoting sites through +1 you will be telling Google to put more priority on these sites in your personal search results, but if you are logged into Google+ as well, it will also affect your friends and families results. When you hit +1 on a site you will be effectively recommending it to the people you are connected to through Google+ and, vice versa, their preferences and +1s will be impacting your results.

What we are left with then is effectively very individual search results for each user that are based on your own individual preferences and those of your connections, making for very personal Google search results for each user.

If Google gets a large number of people using Google+ and +1, and the search results that are generated when logged in are more suitable, relevant and appropriate than the previous natural results, it could radically change how sites are optimised for search engines.

With a larger social element in search, websites will have to become more social. This does not mean simply creating a Twitter account and occasionally tweeting people to look at your site, but rather building up interesting, well maintained and interactive profiles on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ with the aim of getting people to Like and +1 your site, spreading it around the social world and increasing its visibility in people’s individual search engine results.

However, I think it is worth noting that although Google is clearly putting a higher impact on social signals it does not mean that they are the only signals that matter. The Google algorithm is too complex and refined to simply rely on one signal and will still continue to place importance on site content, domain history, site structure and of course links.

What’s more, although we may start to see people searching through Google+ and getting search results that are much more social, there will still be a large volume of search traffic that is not done whilst logged into a Google+ account so it will still be important to try and rank naturally within the search engine, outside of targeting social profiles.

It is also crucial to remember that as well as being able to spread positive views about your site quickly around the web and bump up your site in search results, social media can also have a highly damaging affect on your brand and customer loyalty.

For example, say you take a site that sells women’s shoes and decide to build up its presence in social media. You may create a Twitter profile, a Facebook Fan Page and a new Google+ account, start connecting with your customers and generating Likes, Tweets and +1s.

However, just as these platforms will quickly share and spread positive news about your site it will also do the opposite. If you get a customer who is unhappy with your service or product they will be able to vent this anger in a matter of seconds on social media, which will be public for all of your other followers and fans to see.

It is therefore imperative that if you decide to use social media to help optimise your site you are aware that it will need daily, hands on management and careful monitoring. The last thing you want is 500 customers all reading negative comments about you that you haven’t responded to or dealt with.

It is also worth considering that just as Google’s algorithm is now positively promoting sites that are well optimised in social media, the algorithm may also develop to punish those with negative feedback. I know if there was one I would use a ‘dislike’ button from time to time and who’s to say Google doesn’t have something in place to pick up on negative comments, reviews and tweets?

Search is definitely becoming more social.  Google’s introduction of + and +1 should be taken seriously as over the rest of 2011 and coming years it will likely play a huge part in the search algorithm. The way we search and the individual results we see will also start to become more social over the next few years. However, it is also important to remember that there is never just a single element to search, and other factors such as site structure, content and links should definitely not be ignored.

Matthew Oxley

Matthew Oxley