Being popular gets you everywhere.
Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapoor from the American show The Office) talks in her book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and Other Concerns” about how she imagined getting award show gift bags with vacations to wildlife reserves and $500 jars of miracle face creams made from human placentas. But since she’s not an A-List actor so in reality she would get stuff like protein bars and socks, and sometimes wouldn’t even be allowed into events.
It’s not that Mindy isn’t a fantastic person – she is. But she’s simply not as popular as the Meryl Streeps and Angelina Jolies of the world. The awards show gift bag preppers and door bouncers have a standard for who they let in and what they give them, based on how popular they are right now and among others at the event.
Google works the same way. When there are hundreds, thousands, or even millions of potential pages that could be in those first ten search results, Google has to make a decision about who is the most relevant and who is most popular among their peers right now. If that’s your page, well then welcome to the Oscars, and please enjoy your placenta cream.
The popularity factor in ranking
Knowing that links can and do affect rankings, our industry has blossomed around buying, selling, injecting, manipulating and basically selling our first born to get every link possible. It’s time-consuming, it’s not fun, and it certainly doesn’t make Google happy, since it clouds their vision of who is really popular. And it’s not news that Google has been working on fixing that.
So if you’re thinking ahead – thinking about what tactics you’re going to be able to implement as Google continues to crack down on SEO manipulation over the next year, 5 years, 10 years, then you should be thinking about more than just links. You should be thinking about what is going to make your audience naturally love and share and engage with your stuff online. I call this the popularity factor.
Popularity factor #1: Sharing is caring
In December 2010 Danny Sullivan asked Google and Bing if and how they consider Facebook and Twitter in their algorithms, and because Danny is magic, they answered him. Although some of the answers were a bit nebulous, we got a sense for how the search engines are thinking about what social signals might be important.
Before this there was some disbelief that a link from Twitter or Facebook (if it’s crawlable) could potentially contribute to a page’s rankings because of nofollows on the links. With thousands of PhDs working at Google I’m quite certain that the fact that a share, something people are excited about enough to tell others (not unlike a link), wouldn’t be beyond their grasp. It makes complete sense. Whether the link is nofollowed or not, it’s a sign that someone likes this piece of content. Just like a typical link, it’s a vote. And with the exception of social sharing spam, there’s no reason to ignore this increasingly popular type of signal.
Even in 2010 Google and Bing shared that the authority of a social share and the quantity of shares were factors considered in their algorithms and/or search result displays. Deducing the nebulous answers we can see that they were considering these factors (in web search and/or social search results, which have changed since then):
- Authority: Importance or authority level of the person sharing the URL.
- Quantity: How many times the URL has been shared.
And I’d also bet that by now they are also considering and possibly using these factors:
- Expertise: Whether the sharer is an expert in the topic. A recent Microsoft & Carnegie Mellon study defined browsing “experts” as people who had been to a site x times. In social metrics, authority (how many followers/friends/etc you have) + topics (what you talk about most, what’s retweeted most, etc) could easily equal experts.
- Type of query: It makes perfect sense that social signals might affect some kinds of queries more than others. For example, social signals probably come into play a lot more for news-related queries like a celebrity death, than static queries like refrigerator parts.
It’s all about Google+, right?
A few studies have attempted to look at the effects of social sharing on rankings (examples: 1, 2). Though, in my opinion the studies should be taken with a very large grain of salt, the interesting commonality seems to be that Google+ has more of an influence on the rankings in these tests than Twitter or Facebook shares.
Many people take the conspiracy theory route and blindly claim that Google favors pages that have verified Google authorship (in my experience it’s typically because they heard someone else say it). Google has also said that Google authorship doesn’t affect rankings, although it could in the future.
My thought on this is that there may be a high congruence between Google authorshipped pages and rankings, but if there is I’d believe that it’s currently more likely due to an indirect effect. Google has written about the tests they’ve done on the clickthrough rate of G+ results in September 2011, and increased the image sizes after the tests, presumably so that the CTR would be higher. We assume that organic search results that get clicks can perform better overall than SERPS that are ignored. Therefore, just like other video and image rich snippets in SERPS, it would make sense that people would tend to click on the results with the G+ author photo, especially if it’s someone they know.
All in all, Google’s Matt Cutts recently mentioned social likely becoming an even stronger factor in the future and is crucial currently for personalized search.
Popularity factor #2: Engagement
It’s still pretty tough to say exactly what the search engines might be able to see and/or take into consideration around what happens once a searcher enters a site. Google has said, in an older version of their policy page I saved called Ad Planner data methodology – Ad Planner Help, that they dip into a wealth of places to gather data for AdPlanner including Google Analytics and the toolbar and Google Analytics. Why wouldn’t the Search folks be doing the same? It’s entirely possible.
Several Google and Microsoft research papers and patents have mentioned a variety of ways they are thinking about engagement, including scrolling on a page, printing or downloading something from the page, bookmarking it, how long it is in focus, and more.
For example, here is an excerpt from a Google patent titled “Systems and methods for demoting personalized search results based on personal information”
Other characteristics of user behavior that can be used for user profiling include one or more of the following: the length of time that a user interacts with the website, the proportion of the website viewed by the user, actions (in addition to clicks) taken by a user while visiting the website (e.g., printing, bookmarking, cutting and pasting, annotating), and a user’s activity subsequent to the interaction with the website.
We would be pulling the wool over our own eyes to think that engagement in some way, shape or form, even if it’s simply bounces back to SERPS, time on page/site and/or pages per visitor, is not considered as a factor when weighing the popularity of your page versus the millions of others on the same topic.
Popularity factor #3: Links
This one needs no explanation. Links are still, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, a ranking factor, and of course an indication of popularity. Of course the level of link manipulation that SEOs can get away with is changing, there’s no doubt good links can still work wonders for a page and the site it’s on.
But I sell toilets: Woe is me
Around 2006 I wrote a blog post on toilets. It was on a Yahoo 360 blog (a product that no longer exists) and I wasn’t popular enough for anyone to scrape anything I said, so it is unfortunately long gone, but here’s the point: I was excited about a toilet. Excited enough to not only link to a few toilets, but actually write about them too. It’s not that I’m a plumbing aficionado by any means, but who wouldn’t get excited about a toilet that has a seat warmer and plays music while you do your duty? Or an innovation being considered where your “deposit” is analyzed to give you, and potentially your health care provider, an analysis?
The point is, I’ve heard the complaint over and over again that it’s impossible to generate links and shares naturally for something boring like refrigerator parts and cranes and toilets. I respectfully disagree for two reasons:
- It’s all relative: Your popularity in search results is relative to other search results. Your toilet page is competing with other toilet pages, so be the best toilet page you can be and don’t worry about how many links travel articles and celebrity news sites get. You’re likely not being compared to them.
- If these guys can do it, you can too:
So what can the Mindy Kalings of the internet world do to generate more popularity? Figure out what you’re good at and do that better than everyone else. Write a book, become a thought leader, hone your craft, get creative, prove yourself, know what gets your audiences excited and go out there and do it. Spend less time building links to try to make it look like your popular in the directories and blogspots of the internet and instead spend that time doing something remarkable. It’s the way SEO is going. And just like SEO has always been – you’re better off paving the way than being late to the game.
Agree? Disagree? Know of other factors you’d consider popularity factors? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or via @lauralippay on Twitter!