Earlier this month, Google launched "Search Plus Your World". We'll refer to it as "SPYW" to save time. The set of personalization features essentially equates to Google injecting a whole lot of Google+ into Google search results. This has been met with widespread criticism that continues two weeks later. According to a lot of the chatter going on, Google has lost the respect of a lot of users, and even some of its alumni.
The real question is: has SPYW made Google's results better or worse? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Competitors like Twtitter and Facebook have been pretty vocal about the changes. Twitter publicly complained as soon as the features launched, claiming they're bad for the Internet. Various Facebook staff complained about the features in status updates.
This week, we learned that one Facebook staffer took things a great deal further by creating a bookmarklet for web browsers that eliminate the features, and "Focus on the user," as they put it.
One of the main things it does is add content from other places like Twitter , Facebook, YouTube, etc. to the "People and Places" section that appears for some queries. Google in its current state only shows Google+ pages and profiles here. This is why some find the whole thing anticompetitive, and even a sacrifice of relevancy, as Twitter profiles and Facebook pages will often be much more heavily followed and/or updated.
The +1 button already gave marketers incentive to use Google+. Google has been clear about the button having an impact on search ranking from the beginning. They've also been pushing authorship, which is tied to the Google Profile (the heart of a user's Google+ presence). Google has indicated it would use this as a ranking signal. At the very least, it's already adding to search visibility by simply adding a visual standout in search results (by showing the author's photo). It's also a link right back to the user's profile, which promotes Google+.
Online marketing firm iProspect recently shared some commentary on SPYW after distributing a POV to its clients with insights into the changes. In the POV, the firm said:
These moves mark a continuation of the trends to include more social content and signals as part of both search results and the algorithms that determine them. By integrating both related Google+ profiles and the ability to follow them directly from SERPs for musicians, this may also mean the integration of Google+ business pages as well – for example, suggesting users follow the adidas brand page as a result of searching for adidas, or Motel 6 as a result of searching for Motels, making optimization, linking, following and keywords usage surrounding these profiles even more important.
Furthermore, the wider use of content from a user’s social sphere theoretically opens the door to other Google-related services and activities becoming part of search results. For example, highlighting YouTube channels that a user (or a user’s contacts) are subscribed to, have liked, rated highly, stores and restaurants reviewed by people in a user’s circles, or content from sites that are part of their friends’ reader list, makes participation and gaining a following in these spheres even more important.
Clearly marketers are respecting Google's strategy. How can they not?
“Brands definitely need to at least be claiming their names in Google+, if not contributing at the same level that they might in other social networks to take advantage of the special preferences that Google+ is getting in results,” Herndon Hasty, Associate Director, SEO at iProspect told WebProNews. “Images shared on Google+ are getting a lot more real estate on the SERPs than they did before, and shared videos are called out in the new SERPs as well, so making sure to share these kinds of assets from Google+ can help put you at an advantage when it comes to continually attracting your followers’ attention.”
Another thing worth considering is that SPYW seems to be indexing content faster. We recently looked at a test from Google+ power user Paul Allen, who found that it took less than a minute for a Google+ post to show up in logged-in, personalized Google search results for Google+ users, and it took 20 minutes to show up for non-logged in users via Google's main search results.
As Google+ is clearly having a bigger impact on search visibility, some are even questioning how big a factor on-page text even is for ranking in Google these days. Barry Schwartz points to some conversation on this topic in the WebmasterWorld forum. The hypothesis here is that Google is basically using on-page text to determine relevance, but hardly at all for ranking.
I'm not sure if I am buying this entirely, given the huge emphasis Google has been placing on deep, quality content over the past year with the Panda update. That said, social does appear to be taking a bigger role. The good news is that deep, quality content is likely to be shared.
Who is this content coming from?
As we've been saying for months, Google is placing a great deal more emphasis on who you are, when it comes to search. This is evident with the authorship strategy and Google+ integration as a whole. Now, however, Google has made the interesting choice of allowing Google+ users to use pseudonyms, something the company resisted greatly when Google+ first launched (though some slipped through the cracks).
Google wants its search results to represent quality. It's the same mentality expressed when Google wanted real-looking photos of people in the authorship program (real as in, non-zombie, for example).
"One of the complications it’s complicated on is atmosphere," said Google's Vic Gundotra on why they didn't allow pseudonyms from the get go. "If you’re a woman and you post a photo and Captain Crunch or Dog Fart comments on it, it changes the atmosphere of the product.”
Over the next week, we’ll be adding support for alternate names – be they nicknames, maiden names, or names in another script – alongside your common name. This name will show up on your Google+ profile and in the hovercards which appear over your name. In the next few weeks, we’ll be displaying it more broadly as part of your name in other areas of Google+ as well. So if you’re Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jane Doe (Smith), or Saurabh Sharma (सौरभ शर्मा), you can now communicate your identity the way you want to.
To add an alternate name, go to your Google+ profile, click Edit Profile, select your name and click on “More options.”
I don't see this having much of an effect on search rankings. If you go by the name "Dog Fart," you're still going to have to have enough clout on Google+ to send Google signals that you should be ranking for things. I don't expect the Dog Farts of the Google Plusiverse to be ranking particularly well for medical advice. On the other hand, with SPYW, if you're friends with Dog Fart, and he has posted about how to treat cancer, I suppose there's a fair chance you'll see that. We'll have to keep our eyes peeled for such examples.
Google is even taking criticism for the timing of the pseudonym roll-out. Trevor Gilbert at PandoDaily, for example, writes, "Search, Plus Your World wouldn’t have worked if pseudonyms remained disabled. Instead, people would search and find nothing relevant (certainly not the Twitter and Facebook pages they were looking for). At the same time, Google+ would have been – marginally – worse at launch if they had accepted pseudonyms from the get-go. So what did Google do? They played dumb for a few months to get users to use their legal names, and then when Google needed pseudonyms, they are suddenly open to the idea."
"The entire thing is a joke, really," he adds. "Google waited as long as it could without hurting itself, then changed positions entirely. In the end, Google is doing what is best for the user, so long as it is also best for Google."
Google is really taking criticism from all angles these days, particularly since SPYW launched. That includes competitors and users. We never really saw Twitter speak out about the company the way it has in this case, and the whole bookmarket thing is really an extension of that, with Facebook and Myspace jumping in too (engineers from these companies contributed to the bookmarklet).
As mentioned earlier, some Facebook employees have criticized SPYW, and that includes at least one former Googler (the guy credited with coming up with the Circles concept implemented in Google+ no less). "Some of my ex-colleagues (who I still love) are going to shout at me, but well, I’ve just moved my default search engine to Bing.”
Business Insider talked to a former Googler who called SPYW "a sad day" and "a turning point".
One has to wonder if there are people within Google still, who are offended by Google's moves.
At any rate, the relevancy of Google's search results is what is really at stake, and that's what is going to make people either continue to use Google as a search engine or go "a click away" to Bing, Yahoo or somewhere else for their search needs.
Is Google shooting itself in the foot with SPYW or is Google's version of personalized search a step in the right direction? Tell us what you think.