We knew it was going to happen eventually, but many digital marketers were taken somewhat by surprise when it happened all at once. Seemingly overnight, the era of social search dawned. Bing just started to incorporate tweets into search results, with Google right on its heels.
Then Google announced social search. Unlike most Google rollouts, it's available to everyone right off the bat (so if you're still pining for a Google Wave or Voice invitation, at least you've got something new from the company to keep you busy in the meantime).
Google Social Search really only kicks in if you've got a Google profile. Surely you have a Google profile by now? Well, time to seriously update it. By adding links to social networks and media you're involved with, e.g., Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, FriendFeed, Naymz...the list goes on and on -- Google can connect your search results with relevant information from your network.
What does that mean, exactly? Say you're visiting Seattle and get a hankering for sushi. Search on Google and if someone in your network is singing the praises of a local sushi place on their blog, in their tweets, or on their Facebook page, it's going to appear in your search results. But probably not mine, unless we share that friend in common.
Word-of-Mouth Marketing Meets SEO
Take it a step further. Shopping for a new digital camera? Considering doing business with a specific company? Search engines are becoming recommendation engines, and recommendations are coming from those people you trust the most: friends, family, and colleagues.
Currently, in addition to having a Google profile, you have to sign up to participate in Google's social search experiment (and Yahoo announced last week that it's incorporating the profiles into its search filters, too -- all the more reason to start test-driving). The eventuality, of course, is that social results will soon become part of the search engine results page (SERP). And there are going to be some major repercussions.
First and most obviously, these "social results" will make getting on the first page or two of organic search results much more competitive. You'll be competing not only with highly optimized competitors, but also with the searcher's entire social network. Yikes!
And paid search ads? Right now the jury's out. If the SERP is telling you an authoritative friend recommends Brand X, while the paid ads are touting Brand Y, which way are you going to go?
People overwhelmingly trust personal recommendations more than ads. It's beyond doubtful that social search will kill paid search advertising, of course, but it could eventually radically change the type of ads out there, particularly in popular consumer categories. One very likely outcome is that you can expect ads to be much more special-offer oriented, emphasizing price and value-adds to counter or compete with personal recommendations.
A New Kind of Link Love
Links have always been a critical element of SEO. Soon, who you're linked to socially could have more bearing than what sites are authoritatively linked to, insofar as search rankings are concerned.
As things stand now, you must opt into social search. Google has its infamous "don't be evil" motto to uphold, and getting results from your friends would be downright creepy if it happened just like that. And opting in requires some work. Not only do you have to set up a Google profile, you have to dig in and link all your social networks to it. For digital natives, that gets to be a rather formidable task. Of course, you can be discerning and pick and choose the information you're sharing with the search engines -- not at all a bad idea, particularly if your Flickr or MySpace accounts contain information or images of a somewhat compromising nature.
How will this all shake out for marketers? It's impossible to say at this point, but rest assured, there will be repercussions. Big ones.
That's why the time to start experimenting with social search is now. Sign up for social search, dust off your Google profile, and watch for possibilities.
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Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.