Organic search: Google+ cannot be special
I have written on this topic a number of times, and sounding like the proverbial broken record, I would like to explain why an author rank mediated by means of authorship tied to a Google+ profile cannot be used in organic search, and why actions on Google+ such as +1s, shares, and comments cannot be accorded special weight in organic search because it is Google+. My central argument hinges on an external constraint placed on Google, and not what Google wishes to do if it had a free hand or what it can do in terms of technical feasibility, namely that authorities responsible for a fair competition in the market such as the European Commission (EC) in the European Union and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US will not condone such actions on the part of Google. As a disclaimer, I would like to make it clear that I am not a specialist in competition policy or law, as such I may well be wrong, and it follows that if my basic assumptions above turn out to be wrong, then my argument shall collapse.
The reason the likes of the EC and the FTC will not look kindly at Google using Google+ in organic search is because of the market dominance of Google in organic search. The degree of market dominance is greater in many European countries than in the US, and given the EC has not been shy to take action, the European markets may be more problematical in this respect. There is no issue with Google enjoying a near-monopoly position in organic search in some European markets: Google has provided better results than other search engines, and consumers have chosen to use Google over other competitors. It is possible that a new search engine enters a market and provides a better service than Google, and thereby gains a large market share: over the years, there have been many search engines touted as the next Google or the Google killer, even if none of them lived up to billing. Yet the opportunity is still there for a better search engine than Google to enter the market.
There is however a problem once Google uses its dominant market position in organic search in an abusive manner, and according Google+ in organic search a special status would be such a case of abuse. Perhaps an analogy may be made to AdWords advertisers: they are not favoured in any way in organic search, conspiracy theorists notwithstanding. It can be argued that if being an AdWords advertiser makes his or her site rank higher in the organic search results, then Google is using its strength in organic search to push people into using AdWords, which is a different product area, online advertisements, from organic search. Similarly, anyone with a website and who wishes to rank well will have to use Google+, if Google+ were a positive ranking factor, even though he or she does not think that Google+ is a better product in its market: it is a moot point which product market Google+ occupies, such as whether it is in the same market as Facebook or Twitter, as it does not matter, insofar as it is clearly a different product from organic search.
For this reason, an author rank mediated by authorship, i.e. a Google+ profile, cannot be ranking factor in organic search, and while +1s, shares, reshares, and links in comments may count as links, assessed in the same way as any other link on the web, they cannot be given any special value. Also, most outgoing links from Google+ are nofollow and as such do not contribute towards the link graph. I speculate that there is a clear delineation within Google between those working on search, and those who are working on Google+, and one does not influence the other. So does this mean Google+ is useless as far as search engine rankings are concerned? The answer to that (rhetorical) question would be an emphatic no.
Personalized search: Google+ can be special
It seems reasonably clear that Google+ is used for content discovery by search. Also, Google+ can naturally indirectly help sites in rankings: if a webpage is shared by a Google+ profile or page with a large following, or becomes popular on Google because it is shared and reshared many times, then such would generate traffic, which may in turn lead to visitors linking to the page on other sites such as their blogs. Webpages may not be ranking high because of Google+ factors, but they are ranking well because of the traffic and the consequent links generated via Google+. In this sense Google+ is not unlike other social media platforms that can perform similar functions.
Perceptive readers would have noticed that I have emphasized that my observations in the preceding section related to organic search, and I would like to argue in this latter part of the piece that Google+ will be important for search, not organic but for personalized search. The big question in the short and medium term is how large a market personalized search tied to the Google+ landscape will be, from the growth in the use of Google+ and from cannibalizing Google’s organic search market. My pure guess is that it is going to be pretty substantial. Rather like paid search results (i.e. advertisements) are presented alongside organic search results, Google may integrate the personalized search results further than it currently does with SPYW (Search Plus Your World), when the user is signed in to Google(+), by placing them on the same page as organic search results. Whether an ordinary user can distinguish the different types of searches, such as paid, local, personal, and organic, may well turn out to be a very contested issue.
If personalized search, tied closely to the Google+ landscape, were to become important, then it is going to be the social nexuses that are going to be crucial, as much as the relevancy of content. Quantity – such as the number of +1s for example – will be of limited value, as the importance is placed on the social nexuses and context. For instance, it would make sense for personalized search to emphasize pages authored by the Google+ profiles of those whom I follow, since that is an indication that I value that person’s output. Equally the webpage recommended by means of +1 by those in the circles will carry weight.
A personalized search within and connected to Google+ is a search conducted in an artificial environment, since a Google+ profile does not necessarily reflect, represent, or embody the whole, integral person. But within such limitations, people represented by Google+ profiles and things represented by Google+ pages are following other people and things, and there are social connections, and there exists in environment where some people’s and things’ actions and recommendations carry more weight. Making an even wilder speculation and a flight of fancy, their weight – or a rank if you will – is likely to be dynamic: it is not a static figure stating that Google+ profile X or Google+ page Y has a rank of Z (on a particular topic), but it is determined by the person and the social connections and nexuses, as well as topicality or freshness.
It will therefore be more difficult to game the system in that the Google+ profile or page requires to be followed by the target audience or their social connections and nexuses. Put it another way: spammers will be mutually adding their profiles and pages, ending up seeing a lot of spam, recommended by other spammers, without ever reaching the target audience. Cultivating a Google+ presence requires genuine effort and interaction. It will be slow to build an audience in the form of following, and it will be potentially very quick to lose the audience or even the Google+ profile or page itself due to policy violations.
So what have I argued? In a nutshell: while Google+ cannot be special in organic search, it will be an important factor in personalized search. Personalized search will become a big market. Furthermore, in personalized search connections matter and not really the raw numbers. In this respect, ranking well in personalized search is more difficult and less easily manipulable. It is not how many people follow a Google+ profile or page, but who and what follow the Google+ page or profile. I may well be wrong, and 2014 could be the year when I discover how wrong I am in writing this piece: I can only wait and see what Google does.