The key point about Google+ is that its various functions and services collect information from users. Google can use this information to fine tune things so that it delivers results more in line with what you’d like to see when you use its search engine. Not coincidentally, Google can also use this information to deliver more relevant, targeted ads, which will lead to more profits both for the search engine and its advertisers.
To better understand this picture, let’s take a look at the kind of data Google might garner from Google+ users. Brian Chappell covers this topic well. He mentions seven data points from Google+ that could help Google with its search algorithm.
Chappell starts with Google Circles. These are a way to sort your contacts and put them in particular groups. It’s a great addition to social networking, as it allows you to designate certain people as co-workers, family, friends, etc. You can create new circles and name them yourself. So if you belong to a hiking club and create a circle you’ve labeled “hiking club,” you’ve indirectly indicated to Google that these people are interested in hiking. Too specific? Chappell actually takes a more general view of Google Circles, seeing them as a vote for a person, just like links are a vote for a website. He thinks it could give Google a better understanding of “the influencers within its network.”
The second item Chappell points to is the Google+1 button. As with Facebook, you can apparently +1 a lot of things. When a status update, image, web page, or what have you has received a lot of pluses from visitors, it would be natural to assume it’s trusted and authoritative in some way. As Chappell rightly points out, however, the feature could easily fall prey to manipulation, as so many other potential metrics have in the past.
It’s the third item Chappell mentions, though, that might affect Google’s algorithm the most. It’s called Google Sparks. Sparks basically lets you add interests and delivers links related to those interests. You can then share those links with one (or presumably more) of your circles and even chat about them. In reporting on Sparks, Barry Schwartz thought it was fairly limited, as it didn’t contain much information in which he was interested, and seemed to mirror Google News. Hopefully, that will change as time goes on. Chappell sees Google Sparks as giving the search engine another level of targeting. “If Google can understand your interests then they can interpret the weight of your voting abilities on given subject matters.” All of a sudden, Google knows how much a +1 from you means when you give it to a hiking site – and that it probably means more than if you give it to, say, a musical instrument store.
Of course, one of the easiest places on Google+ from which Google can get information about you is your profile data. This is where you can fill in your occupation, employment history, education, where you’ve lived, your birthday, and your gender. Are you associated with any web pages or websites? You can add those links. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this is called demographics data, and it’s incredibly valuable to advertisers.
Chappell next mentions Google+ Hangouts as a possible function from which Google might garner useful data for its algorithm. He describes it as a group voice chat, and points out that some companies in the group video industry transcribe the conversations. He thinks that Google might be able to “listen” to the conversations on Google+ Hangouts and get useful data for ad targeting from them. I’m not quite so certain – in part because I foresee a major PR/privacy stink for Google if they’re doing that and word of it ever gets out (and these things always get out). On the other hand, Google Romance, an old April Fool’s Day joke from the company, suggests one possibility: contextual ads during the chat. It’s unlikely, of course, but it wouldn’t be the first time such a hoax got brought into the real world in some form.
Chappell suggests that Google could also use localization to aid its ad and search result targeting. Google+ happens to be integrated with Google Mobile right out of the box – and you can easily use the GPS to set your location. This makes it easy to target users based on their location – an option that advertisers will certainly appreciate.
Finally, Chappell suggests that photos on Google+ may be used by robot spiders with facial recognition to indicate a social bond between people. It’s possible, but I’m a little more skeptical; if that’s the case, Google’s own Matt Cutts will need to be a little more careful about who he’s photographed with. Still, as Chappell indicates, it’s one way that Google might try to understand who you’re connected with in the real world. Of course, it’s not the only way, and it shouldn’t be thought of as a standalone signal.
Indeed, Chappell makes it clear that none of these signals are likely to be treated as if they exist in a vacuum when he gives an example of how the search engine might work once it taps into data from Google Plus. Say a user with a Google+ account starts a search. His Google+ activity tells Google that he’s interested in the outdoors, snorkeling, organic food, green energy and gardening. He searches for “How to garden,” and what kind of results do you suppose he’ll get?
Chappell things that “he will be served with results that are skewed with articles that discuss organic gardening and gardening with a low impact on the earth…Sites that might never have ranked before in the top 10, now are ranking because they have data that Google+ interpreted as the most relevant ‘Top 10′ result.”
What does this mean for SEOs? If you thought you could avoid engaging on social sites and still rank on Google, give that idea up right now. Maybe you can, but you’re going to have to do it by being the best in your niche (which is not a bad strategy for the long term in any case). On the other hand, if you’re advertising with Google, you just might be able to get even more targeted traffic. And on the third hand, over time you may have to consider what a top ranking on Google means; you not only have to ask “for what keyword?” but “for which users?” It’s not the death of SEO by any means, but it could be the end of SEO “tricks” and “gimmicks.” Good luck!