How will the demise of Google+ affect SEO?

Ben
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If you can’t explain what makes your product unique, odds are good that you’ll have a hard time convincing customers to take a leap of faith.

Consider Google+, the ill-fated social network launched by the search behemoth in 2011 that was recently earmarked for obscurity.

G+ as Facebook rival: Welcome to Curation Nation

Initially, G+ was pitched as an answer to the privacy concerns that were swirling (and continue to swirl) around Facebook’s Open Graph.

“There is a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth,” Vic Gundotra, Google’s then-senior vice president of social business, said in October 2011. “I think a core attribute to being human is to curate…even when it’s something as simple as music, I don’t want everything to be shared.”

When its future as a Facebook killer fizzled, G+ was repositioned as an “interest network,” geared towards “fill(ing) a gap between existing offerings, complementing rather than directly competing with other online social media services. It’s architecture, which encourages people to speak with strangers, have lengthy replies, and customize the information they see, allows Google+ to occupy its own niche.” In other words, Facebook for smart people.

Problem: Facebook was already Facebook for smart people, just like it was also Facebook for dumb people. Lengthy, meaningful conversations could be had on Facebook, invarying degrees of privacy and with people you know or did not know, as long as you were willing to seek them out — which was easier than building a completely new presence on a secondary network.

On to the next one: Google+ as an identity system

G+ then situated itself as an identity system that served as a sort of account-settings-on-steroids platform for Google users, a benefit (or nuisance) that most Googlers ignored: DailyDot.com reported that 0.3 perecent of all G+ profiles (accounting for 6.6 million users) posted on the service in January 2015.

At the time, G+ had 2 billion users — impressive, until you consider they popped up anytime a user created, say, a gmail or YouTube account — and only 9 percent had ever used their G+ account at all.

G+ was living up to its infamous New York TImes characterization as “a ghost town,” because for most users – the ones who didn’t want or have time for lengthy conversations on esoteric topics – it was.

“Everything in its right place:” Goodbye, old G+

On July 27, Bradley Horowitz, Google’s vice president of streams, photos and sharing, dropped the hammer:

“When we launched Google+, we set out to help people discover, share and connect across Google like they do in real life. While we got certain things right, we made a few choices that, in hindsight, we’ve needed to rethink. So over the next few months, we’re going to be making some important changes.”

The changes included what Horowitz called:

  • A more focused G+ experience. G+, going forward, is going to be all about shared interests. Tools like G+ Collections will help facilitate that experience. Tools that do not — like G+ Photos, which more intuitively fit into its own app — will be broken out.
  • Using Google without a G+ profile. If you don’t want your G+ account to be your Google identity, it won’t have to be. YouTube will make the leap first, which — given its mega-presence and distinct identity — makes sense.

Google is also eliminating unverified G+ local business pages as part of its push to emphasize Google My Business, its centralized identity platform for retailers.

So what about Google+ and SEO?

To search engine practicioners, marketers, writers and other content creators, perhaps the most important aspect of G+ was not its Hangouts, its admittedly-cool photo-sharing tools or the ability to have “lengthy conversations.”

No, what made G+ was its sweet, sweet SEO juice, the boost that Google’s in-house social network gave to its own organic search results.

Consider John Stokes’ Dec. 17, 2014 — less than a year ago! — post, “The Link Between Google+ and SEO Demystified.” Stokes makes several important points:

  • “According to research from Searchmetrics, social signals account for seven out of the top eight factors correlated with Google search results, but Google +1s take the top spot. In fact, Google +1s have the single highest correlation with Google search ranking (0.4), higher than than the number of Facebook shares (0.34), number of backlinks (0.34), and total Facebook Likes, Shares, and Comments (0.34).” In other words, get your G+ audience to engage with your content, and Google will give you SEO rewards. Scandalous!
  • +1’s also had a significant impact on Page Authority and, according to Moz.com, “beat out other well known metrics including linking root domains, Facebook shares, and even keyword usage.”
  • Stokes writes: “Google+ interactions affect Google search rankings more than virtually any other metric. Cultivating a strong Google+ presence helps to drive organic site visits, which convert at a higher rate than outbound-sourced leads…Not only does it provide engagement with diverse populations, but it directly affects measurable outcomes beyond engagement, including higher search results ranking.”

 

Google eliminated its Authorship program in June 2014 — remember when your face would pop up next to your posts in search results? — and began to rely on on-page bylines to determine Author Rank. Will the +1 go the way of the dinosaur (or the Orkut) as well?

Probably not. Given the fact that Moz shows no signs of slowing down its G+ posting is a good sign that those +1’s are still important — or will be treated as important until research proves otherwise.

There does seem to be some change afoot, however. Consider this post from Barry Schwartz, who noted that Google appears to be testing the removal of G+ results in what are called the “Local Pack” results that appear atop organic search results:

Googe+

That’s odd — and appears to confirm the idea that Google is slowing moving away from G+’s relevance towards local businesses and pushing it more towards Google My Business.

“Google is very serious about Google My Business, which works with the Google+ Local pages on some level,” Schwartz writes. “It will be interesting to watch how this space changes, as it is always changing quickly.”

That final sentence nails it. As G+ drifts into obscurity, Google is already adjusting its product line to tweak its monolithic search engine with other in-house inventions. And we’ll need to keep up, one way or another.