Not too long ago I was looking at at thread in a popular LinkedIn group. Someone had asked whether Google+ has any relevancy for business. Many people tried to answer, but the following two were pretty typical of the positive answers given:
Do you notice a commonality in these answers? It's what I see time and again when such a question is asked: "Google+ is good for SEO."
But I've also noticed that when it comes to Google+ and SEO, in the words of the Harry Nilsson hit song, "Everybody's Talkin'" but very few are explaining. Some seem to imply that just creating a Google+ profile or page will magically create search engine influence. That's nonsense. In this article I will explain the real SEO power of Google+, how you obtain it, and what you can do with it.
But first some fundamentals. I realize there may be some readers who will ask, "What is SEO?" and/or "Why should I care?" If that's not you, you might want to skip the next two sections and go straight to "Google+ and SEO."
What Is SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Search engine optimization is the process and practice of both on-site and off-site techniques that enable and encourage search engines to properly index a web site and to "rank" it in search results for appropriate search queries. Once it became widely known that search results could have a significant effect on increasing sales and profitability for businesses, many businesses began to actively seek out and hire or contract with SEOs (as SEO practitioners are known) to try to get their sites ranking high for "money terms," those keywords that people looking to buy a business's products or services would be most likely to use as their search queries.
SEOs seek to understand how search engines such as Google determine what web pages should rank highest for a given search query. They then attempt to do those things, both on-site and off-site, that might help the search engines to properly rank their site. On-site SEO factors include things like setting up proper page titles and making sites easy to "crawl" by the search engines' "spiders" (web robots that explore the web via links to create an index). Off-site techniques primarily focus on link building.
Google says they use over 200 different signals to determine how pages should rank in search. But most prominent among those signals is links from other sites. A unique insight about the power of the hyperlinks that make the web possible led to the creation of Google and revolutionized how we find things on the web. Larry Page and Sergey Brin patented an algorithm called PageRank (after Larry Page) that evaluates links as weighted "votes" for the sites to which they point. The more authority a site has, the more its link votes count. In addition, Google looks at clues such as the anchor text (the "clickable" text of a link) and the context around the link to determine what the link might indicate about what the linked-to page should rank for.
While search engines definitely want appropriate web sites to be easily found, they frown upon outright attempts to manipulate their search results. Attempts to deliberately "game" search results to favor a particular site are known as Black Hat SEO, and practices which conform to the guidelines of major search engines are called White Hat SEO (after the cowboy hats once worn in old Westerns to identify the "bad guys" and "good guys"). Examples of White Hat SEO would be paying a site to place links or stuffing keywords into content. As you might imagine, a lot of SEO techniques range somewhere on the scale between Black Hat and White Hat.
In recent years Google has significantly stepped-up efforts to detect and devalue Black Hat SEO efforts. In more and more cases, sites using such techniques have found themselves actively penalized by Google, either slipping down in the search results, or in some extreme cases, disappearing altogether. As more businesses become aware of the possibility of losing their valuable position in search, they are pushing their SEOs to strengthen their White Hat efforts. (For more on how Google indexes and ranks sites, including the ability to view spam sites being penalized in real time, check out Google's entertaining "How Search Works" site.)
Why Does SEO Matter to My Business?
Ranking well in search engines matters to businesses because few points of contact with potential customers can deliver the kind of targeted, ready-to-buy traffic that comes from search. Search has this ability because people tend to go to search engines at their "moment of intent," the moment when they are either researching something they intend to purchase or looking for where to buy it. This is why businesses are willing to shell out billions of dollars each year for keyword-targeted ads on search (such as Google's AdWords), to buy their way into search results they are unable to rank for "organically."
The golden ticket of search marketing is the organic results, the results returned for a search query that are there "naturally" (not as a result of paid advertising). Obviously being able to drive highly-targeted traffic to your site for free can be highly profitable. And that's why there is an SEO industry, and SEO is indispensable to any online business. And so anything that can help a business build search ranking power, especially in "White Hat" ways, deserves their attention.
Google+ and SEO
As I said above most people who have at least a rudimentary understanding of both SEO and Google+ will tell you that Google+ is important for SEO. They just usually don't know why that is so, or what to do about it.
Google+ has such a powerful effect on Google Search not just because Google+ is a Google product, but due to the very construct of what Google+ is. Google+ represents far more than Google's attempt to get into the social network race to compete with sites like Facebook and Twitter. As head of Google+'s Vic Gundotra has said, "It's really the unification of all of Google's services, with a common social layer."
Google+ provides a direct benefit to Google as it vastly enriches the data Google has from Google users. As people create profiles and then use the web while remaining signed in to Google, Google can more easily track and tie to their identity information about their interests. Google gets even more such data when people actually use Google+, whether by simply +1′ing things across the web or more actively sharing and engaging on the network. This data enables Google to better personalize and target both organic search results and advertising for users. Google knows the better ads and results are targeted, the more responsive to them people are likely to be. Personalization also increases user satisfaction with Google, causing people to be more likely to use Google again and again.
Google+ and Social Signals
For businesses, the intention of Google to use Google+ to improve search results creates a powerful opportunity. Google+ is an open invitation by Google to help them determine what should have prominence in Google search. In part this is due to the importance of social signals to search engines. Since social networks are populated by real people indicating what they really like and think is important through their sharing and liking and retweeting and +1′ing, it's only natural that search engines would be watching these signals.
While use of social signals is still in its infancy, Google and Bing have both indicated that they will only increase in importance in the coming years. But as I'll show you below, there is far more to the effect of Google+ on search than social signals.
Google+ and Web Influence
In previous Windmill Networking columns, I've shown you some of the ways Google+ can help build both your personal and brand influence and reach on the web. In January I showed you the power of a Google+ network. In that post and its follow-up on advanced Google+ networking strategies, I demonstrated Google+'s significant effect on personalized search. This means that the larger your Google+ network, the more people whose search results are either directly or indirectly influenced by you.
Other Google+ related features that can help build your online influence and branding include Google Authorship, which helps more people connect your content creators with all the content they produce, and the rel=publisher connection for brands, which can lead to a prominent Google Knowledge Graph display for your brand in search.
Google+ and PageRank
If this were one of those late night TV infomercials, at this point I'd exclaim, "But wait...there's more!" And it's this "more" that really makes the difference when it comes to Google+ and Google search.
Here it is: Google treats Google+ profile and pages just like "regular" web sites when it comes to search. That only really hits home when you understand that Google+ profiles and pages have PageRank. (By the way, so do Twitter profiles, but due to Google's lack of access to Twitter's full stream and the fact that most Twitter links are "no-follow" [they pass no PageRank "juice"], the amount of influence Twitter has on Google search is debatable.)
That's right. When it comes to search authority (and the ability to pass that authority along to others), Google+ profiles can be just as powerful as any other web page. That means you should not only be using Google+ for SEO, you should be using it to do SEO.
Let me try to spell out why the PageRank of Google+ profiles and pages is so important. All other things being equal, a higher PageRank web page will generally rank better than a lower PageRank page for the same search term. Moreover, high PageRank pages pass on more authority to the sites they link to.
So why has this been largely ignored, even by many professional SEOs?
In part it may be a prejudice against social media profiles and posts among SEOs. They tend not to think of them as real web pages. But there is also the issue of how difficult PageRank is to see for any given web page. The only public PageRank Google releases is known as "toolbar PR" because it was originally displayed on the Google Toolbar. Toolbar PR is only an approximation of actual PageRank (which is a closely guarded secret), and is only updated a few times a year. Web tools that show toolbar PR were showing a PR for Google+ profiles early on, but then that seemed to disappear, leading many SEOs to falsely conclude that Google was no longer assigning PR to Google+ profiles.
But recently Google+ user Joshua Berg discovered a way to see the PR of Google+ profiles. It turns out that Google had changed the URL structures of Google+ profiles, rendering the standard PR tools unable to see them properly. But with his adjustment to the URL, PageRank reappears. He noticed that newer or lesser-used Google+ profiles will still show a PR of 0, so it takes some time and effort to build up a displayable PR. The highest PR profiles Joshua was able to find have a PR of 6 (out of a possible 10 on the toolbar PR scale). Toolbar PR is a very relative measure, and the number of sites goes down significantly with each step up in PR, so most SEOs will tell you that pages with a PR of 3 to 6 are really doing quite well and convey a lot of authority.
How Do Google+ Profiles Gain PageRank?
As with anything regarding the Google search algorithm, the answer is complex, and there is much we can't know. Google keeps the "secret sauce" secret on purpose: if too much is known about how the algorithm ranks pages, webmasters would be very tempted to use that information to game the system. Nevertheless, we do know quite a bit about how PageRank works and how it is gained or lost by web pages. It is reasonable to assume that Google+ profiles and pages gain their PR the "old fashioned" way: by links from authoritative web pages.
But Google+ profiles most likely have another source of gaining PR: other Google+ profiles. Google can obviously see in great detail which profiles interact with other profiles. In the case of Google+, the equivalent of a web link from another profile might be that profile sharing one of my posts, or +mentioning me in a post. So in this scenario, a link from a high PR profile would build my profile's PR.
There may be other ways in which Google assesses the PR of a Google+ page or profile, but what I've stated here is probably safe to assume as the base of what we can know.
What Are the Characteristics of High PageRank Google+ Profiles?
Let me first share a personal tale. For a long time my Google+ profile has had a reputation among Google+ users who know me: I can often outrank other Google+ users in Google search when I reshare their Google+ posts, even if those users have way more followers than I do. For a long time this ability was a mystery to me, but after learning that profiles still have PageRank, and finding out that mine currently has a PR of 5, I think I know why: because I get regular engagement from high-authority Google+ users and my profile has been linked to by a number of high authority web sites, my profile carries higher authority for Google search. So my intentional building of relationships with other authoritative Google+ users and my growing reputation across the web as a Google+ expert (causing many sites to link to my profile) have probably contributed greatly to my profile's search results power.
After a careful study of high-PR Google+ profiles in comparison to my own, I feel pretty confident about the following conclusions:
- Follower count doesn't count for much if anything in terms of search authority. I frequently see posts from low-follower count Google+ users outranking those with larger follower counts. It is true that most very high PR profiles tend to also have lots of followers, but it is more likely that this is correlative than causative. It makes sense that people with high authority are going to be able to attract large followings. But there is enough evidence of low-followed profiles having high PR and the ability to rank well in search to discount following numbers as a major factor. This also means that any scheme to run up circle counts by buying followers is a waste of money.
- +1′s don't add much plus to search power. +1′s are Google+'s equivalent of a Facebook "Like." Just as with follower count, I see little influence of +1 numbers on search authority. Because they are so easily and cheaply given, it makes sense that Google would give them light consideration as a mark of authority. Even Google's own best-known representative to the SEO world, Matt Cutts, said, "When we look at +1, we've found it's not necessarily the best quality signal right now."
- It's not how many you know, it's who you know. Higher PR profiles tend to have active relationships with other high PR profiles. In many cases that's probably how they got their high PR. In my early days on Google+ I managed to attract the attention and respect of some top Google+ users. They began recommending me to others and sharing my posts. Within six months I discovered my profiles' ability to do very well in search results.
- Just following or being followed is not enough. Some have mistakenly assumed that merely having a high-authority person in their circles, or being circled by them, is enough to have authority rub off on their profile. This is no more true than the idea that living in the same neighborhood as a famous person would make one famous. There must be interaction with the high authority person for any authority to be passed, specifically their sharing your content or mentioning your profile or page.
- Back links are the backbone. Just as with regular web pages, having a good number of links to your profile or brand page from authoritative web pages can build the PR and search authority of your profile or page. This means that it is just as important to be attracting good links to your profile as it is to be building a powerful network within Google+.
- Google+ PageRank can come from Google+ relationships, links from the web, or both. I've been collecting data about Google+ profiles that I plan to release as a study in the near future. So far I'm seeing a strong correlation between the strength of back link profiles (the number and authority of links to a particular profile) and the PR of those profiles. But, and this is important, there are outliers and anomalies, profiles with very few or even no outside back links that still have high PR. It seems to me that the PR for those profiles must come entirely from their interactions on Google+. So you can use one or the other to build the authority of your page or profile, but obviously a good combination of the two would have the most powerful effect.
What Is the Value of a High-PR Google+ Profile or Page?
The value of a high PR Google+ profile or brand page runs in two directions:
- Posts from high PR profiles will usually rank better in search. Google indexes public Google+ posts for search, and it appears that they are ranked much in the same way regular web pages are. There is one important difference that makes having high PR for your profile even more important: Google tends to rank only a few (and often only one) Google+ post in search for a given search term. When a keyword is "hot" on Google+ it is common for several posts to rank on the first page or two of Google search, but once things cool down, often only one or two remain that high, and those are almost always from high-authority profiles.
- Links from high PR profiles to web pages are more valuable than links from lower or no PR profiles. All links in Google+ posts used to be "dofollow" (meaning they passed on PR authority to whatever they link to), but now only the "featured link" of a post is followed by Google. This is the link created when someone either shares a post to Google+ directly from a web page using the +1 button, or when they paste the URL of a page into the link box in the Google+ share box. Such links are turned into a "rich snippet" at the bottom of the post (with an image from the post, its title in bold, and an excerpt). This emphasizes the importance of having a Google+ +1 button on all your web and blog pages, since whenever a high-PR profile shares your post, they are creating an authoritative back link to your web page that increases its own search authority!
To expand upon the value of #1 above, let me share with you two bonuses of having Google+ posts that rank well in Google search.
The first is the fact that unlike other social media posts that show up in search, Google+ posts can retain ranking indefinitely. For example, I've had a Google+ post ranking at #1 or #2 in logged-out-of-Google search for the keyword "google+ page analytics" for over a year now (note the date under my byline).
The other is the ability to capture more search page real estate. The example below is an extreme one, but still demonstrates the potential power of Google+ posts. When sites started getting hit by Google's Penguin penalty for having too many low-quality back links, my company created a tool called RemoveEm to help webmasters find and remove those links in order to get back into Google's good graces. After the launch of RemoveEm we shared news about it on Google+ via my account as well as our own brand page. A couple of days later, eight of the top ten results for our most valuable keyword ("backlink removal tool") were references to RemoveEm, and the top four were all Google+ posts (0ne of which was from my Google+ friend Neil Ferre, who has a PR 3 profile.
That result didn't last forever (although we still have three out of the top ten results for that keyword), but it was incredibly valuable for us in the first launch days of our product to have it dominating Google search in this way!
How to Build the SEO Power of Your Google+ Profile or Page
Based on what we've observed above, I would suggest the following strategies to build the search authority of your Google+ profiles and brand pages:
- Follow the techniques I outlined in my previous two Windmill Networking articles (linked in the "Google+ and Web Influence" section above) to build relationships with others on Google+ who are influential in your field. As they begin to see you as a useful and helpful authority, they will begin to share your content and recommend you, creating connections that will build your own authority.
- Pursue opportunities to earn or build links to your profiles/pages from authoritative web pages.
Expanding on #2, here are some suggestions for link building to your Google+ profiles and pages:
- Here is a list of social media sites that allow a dofollow link in your profile. You might want to consider making your Google+ profile your hub link for such profiles.
- Include a profile link wherever possible in guest posts you write for other sites.
- Use Google Authorship, which always creates a link back to your profile.
- Connect your web site to your Google+ brand page with a verified rel=publisher connection.
- Frequently publish blog-quality or newsworthy content directly from your profile or brand page. In addition to Google+ reshares you'll attract, web sites and blogs who find the content interesting can link to it directly. (You can grab the direct URL of any Google+ post by right-clicking on it's time stamp.)
Conclusion: As I've been telling you for the past year in these articles, Google+ affords businesses opportunities to expand reach and influence online like no other social network. It is a doorway into Google of a kind they rarely open so freely. By building a powerful and extensive Google+ network, you have the opportunity to directly affect the personalized search results of thousands of people in your extended network. But as you build the authority of your profiles and pages, you also have the ability to gain ranking positions in search that can be seen (potentially) by anyone and everyone, even if they aren't in your network or even on Google+.
Just as on the "regular" web these days, there are few shortcuts to building such authority, though. It comes from real marketing, real relationship building. Yes you can pursue various strategies to target a network of influencers, and you can build links to your profiles, but in the end it is those who earn their way into the hearts and minds of their customers and peers who will build the kind of lasting influence and ranking power that can't quickly fade or be taken away.
And...you must be worthy of being linked to, being reshared, being recommended. That means doing the hard work of becoming a true expert in your field, and then producing content that demonstrates that, that helps people, than answers their questions. Woody Allen said that 80% of success is showing up, but once you show up, who you are and what you know (and how well you can communicate that) becomes 100%.
I close with these wonderful words from SEO AJ Kohn, in a post where he urges us to pursue building true authority rather than chasing after SEO for SEO's sake:
Of course, being likable is part of the way you can obtain authority. And it is often not what you say, but how you say it (or present it) that gets you noticed. So part of building authority is in ensuring that you can communicate in a way that conveys that expertise but also makes it accessible and ... memorable.