The Popularity Factor in Today’s SEO

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):

  1. Authority: Importance or authority level of the person sharing the URL.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

social media affect on rankings study

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:

  1. 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.
  2. If these guys can do it, you can too:
    1. Social media savvy vacuum ‘tweets what it eats’
    2. The 15 Manliest Toilets
    3. 12 Cool and Unusual Refrigerators
    4. Mobile Crane Accidents

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!



Stay Updated: Sign Up for Webinar & New Blog Alerts

19 thoughts on “The Popularity Factor in Today’s SEO

  1. Richard says:

    LL! Brilliant read, thank you!

  2. John McGovern says:

    Just today I was attempting to get this specific idea to a celebrity client of mine and here you give me the icing on the cake!!

    Excellent!

  3. Joe Youngblood says:

    Making content for a ‘boring’ niche isn’t hard, but often the person who is doing the business can’t see the interesting things about them. That’s the beauty of an agency, we can see the fun stuff, then it’s just getting the client to actually agree to it. Financial client? why not install a Bitcoin ATM and write about how successful and/or unsuccessful it was. (that idea was rejected, so have a freebie)

  4. Brian says:

    Put another way…don’t suck.

  5. Dana Lookadoo says:

    I once remodeled a bathroom with a a grey elongated toilet. I then had a custom carbon fiber toilet seat cover made. I wish I would have known you then! ;-)

    In all seriousness, Laura, this is an fantastic look at popularity – worth reading every word!

    The best takeaway is “Your popularity in search results is relative to other search results.” And if those other results are getting social engagement, our clients should consider their need for such popularity.

  6. John-Henry Scherck says:

    Hi Laura,

    This is a great post and I agree with you about popularity being key. Quick question – would you ever recommend a, “fake it till you make it strategy” for popularity?

    I’ve found that just talking with or writing to reporters in a more authoritative voice and using what little social proof a new company has can help build links and form relationships. But in order to do see, we have to have them appear to be more popular than they are – especially if it’s a startup that is just beginning to get traction.

    What I am driving at is – do you really need to be popular, or is it enough to just be perceived as being popular?

  7. Laura Lippay says:

    Brian – Indeed. I often say the best SEO is a product that doesn’t suck. ;)

    John-Henry. As a new agency in the US I understand where you’re coming from. In this context, what *Google* sees as popularity, when I first read “fake it til you make it” in your comment I thought you were referring to buying/building boring links to seem more popular (as a website). In that respect, only the stuff that wont get your site in trouble.

    In the non-Google ranking real world scenario, I dont think you’re faking it if you really believe you can do it :) You know? I’ve been in the startup scenario four times now and in my experience confidence + innovative thinking attracts $$ (and links and visibility and social proof etc).

  8. Grant Simmons says:

    Few concepts here I enthusiastically agree with!

    We (@ The Search Agency) talk about ‘Authority’ as “Thinking beyond the link.”

    Authority is derived in building a brand; not in the traditional mass media brand building sense, but almost exactly aligned with your (almost) last paragraph around building a trusted, legitimate, topic expertise.

    Factors that underscore legitimacy, expertise and trust seem commonsense inclusions in ranking algorithms.

    Engagement – “Thinking beyond the click” – also makes total sense in providing a feedback mechanism to demonstrate whether search intent was satisfied and to what degree that satisfaction was. i.e. page interaction, social share, comment sentiment.

    I’ve been writing a ‘mini series’ over at Search Engine Watch covering the various phases of engagement and their potential effect for SEO, http://bit.ly/YDG9DQ worth a read :-)

    As noted… A lot of aligned concepts, but you organized them so much better :-)

    Cheers

  9. Rick Noel says:

    Great points Laura. Popularity and its growth seems to be a logarithmic function as opposed to linear in that popularity breeds popularity.

    It’s kind of like when a famous comedian says anything and people laugh whether its funny or not. People will link, follow, like, share, comment on crap if it is form a name brand.

    The hard part on the path to popularity is even getting to the Mindy Kalings point. Who wants to like a Facebook business page with with 259 likes or follow a Twitter account with under 1000 followers.

    Some of the best content goes undiscovered while content of lessor quality, but from popular folks can rise to the top. Popularity can create a definite advantage to those that have it. This helps explain the burgeoning market for Twitter followers for instance. Don’t be tempted to buy earned media as ultimately the outcome is likely to be bad.

    I agree 110% on Google+. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Andy Kuiper says:

    Thanks Laura… Being popular is more important than ever (G+) :-)

  11. Andy Headington says:

    Great post Laura, well done. I think a lot of people will share your thoughts about how important ‘popularity’ are with regards to the algos these days. I’m sure things will be even more weighted towards social signals in the future. The issue if have with ‘popularity’ at the moment is that it can still be faked. There are still many vendors offering XXX of likes, followers, +1s or whatever for literally peanuts. I know from tests I’ve seen that having a few thousands extra video views on YouTube can make a world of difference to how you are perceived online.

    I personally hope that the engagement signals you mention get more prominence in the coming years as it is much harder to fake and should give a better signal of what is truely good content rather than what gets the most votes.

  12. Linda Lee says:

    I totally agree with you. My two top posts are not about my business at all. One is about dating scams and the other is how to block websites in google.
    Between my two websites I get over 5,000 unique visitors a month on those two posts alone. I am a web designer and WordPress expert and have tons on those subjects which do well, but two posts I wrote out of annoyance and anger and also to help educate are my anchor posts of both sites now, which I find amusing. When people say write what you feel passionate about, I have to agree on that.
    I got on TV for to help educate for the dating scam stuff. So you never know.

  13. Alex Fusman says:

    It’s always interesting to see how people in “uninteresting” industries try to get attention and shares by being more interesting, funny or just unusual. Great examples here (the vacuum one is the best!)

  14. Bill Sebald says:

    Sorry, I’m a little late to the party (as usual).

    I believe the struggle here for some in SEO is, well, you’re talking about good old fashioned marketing or PR as an SEO vein. I talk to a lot of SEOs (we have a great monthly meetup here in Philly) and see how there’s a lot of different perceptions of what SEO is about. This can be a bit foreign to some.

    Online I see a lot nodding along with “content,” “social,” “mindshare,” “branding,” but starts to look like the scene from Finding Nemo where the birds chant “mine!” I raise an eyebrow. Not sure they’re all truly getting the marketing part. Maybe it’s just not how they came up. Maybe it’s a more difficult concept, which just might show itself in weaknesses of our industry.

    For some, SEO isn’t marketing. For some it is. To me, this post is a great lesson on marketing through SEO.

  15. Venchito Tampon says:

    This post got the three popularity factors. Cool! :)

    Engagement and sharing are considerations that tells Google you are a person not a machine.

  16. Ammon Johns says:

    That “Woe is me…” bit really made me smile, and then grimace. I’m always struck at how people supposedly in a knowledge-based profession, selling their ‘expertise’, so quickly give up the moment any actual thought or expertise is needed.

    You gave a great example with the toilets. Reminded me of way back when someone asked how they’d build links on ‘slippers’ in 2003. http://www.cre8asiteforums.com/forums/topic/2126-linking-strategies/#entry18864 – The fact that the answers even in 2003 were almost identical to what they’d be today shows how little actual expertise is needed. Just a little creativity.

  17. Andy Williams says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the point about being able to generate links from “boring” products.

    There is always a spin, always a different way of writing about “boring” products and what you may find boring others will be fighting over each other to share.

  18. Zeeshan says:

    Fantastic post Laura. Its no surprise you have received this many comments so far. I wonder whats next in the SEO world. Your article certainly was engaging and this is why good content and social aspects are playing a key factor now seo.

    We are always looking at what might help our seo promotional directions for our site http://www.cashbackmad.co.uk and this article helped shed some light on the latest issues.

    Cheers Laura for a informative write up.

    Zeeshan

  19. Narein says:

    Awesome article… I love it so much. Thanks for the article Laura…

    Cheers

Comments are closed.