Social Networks and Search – will they just spoil each other?

Social is all over the place these days – even the mainstream media mentions it often, particularly at the moment with Facebook having just announced major changes at F8 and with Google pushing Google+ as a major alternative. Following so many SEO-related blogs and Twitter feeds as I do it’s easy to get the feeling that everyone is obsessed by social; it’s only natural I suppose since many of them are busy trying to work out how they can be used to boost their own personal business reputations in the industry or are working out how they could affect the search rankings of their clients.

Truth to tell, I fear most of the imprecations to business clients to embrace social networking falls on deaf ears; or at best are mistaken for direct marketing opportunities. But this post is less about them than a more general consideration of the effects that two two channels may have on each other.

In recent years Google and the few remaining others have been fighting an often losing battle against spam and some of the less ethical practitioners of SEO. There have been more and more complex algorithm changes to combat this problem. Even when it works this has, in some people’s opinion, pushed the search results in a direction that isn’t always that useful for the average searcher. A lot of searches turn up nothing but commercial results even when you’re looking for information – try looking for technical info and you’re often flooded with either buying sites or content farms – while even if you are looking for items to purchase you often end up with endless price comparison sites.

In what they claim is an attempt to combat this they’ve been increasingly turning to social signals. However there are other considerations which may be more important to them. Basically search isn’t a money making operation and Google haven’t been a search company for a long timeĀ  – what they are is an advertising company because that’s where the profits are. I’m old enough to remember forum discussions about Google’s lack of ability to make money (a bit like Twitter today) and the answer to that was of course Adwords and later Adsense. Now, as a mega corporation the pressure on them is to continue to make ever-increasing profits, and the answer is still the same. The longer they can keep you on their properties the more chance they have of advertising to you

In the meantime the social channels, and particularly Facebook, have been spreading their influence in ways that have encroached more and more on the time spent on search engines. The problem for Google is not that Facebook might start another form of search engine, it’s that by channelling people’s use of the web through an almost permanently logged in social experience they are reducing the time that Google can show ads to them. This explains the emphasis that Google have put on trying to crack social over the last few years, culminating in their own full social networking property, Google+.

The problem is that if they use social signals for rankings purpose then they leave themselves open to social spamming – which will almost certainly be easier than link spamming and harder to combat, while also ruining social channels which will become flooded with fake posts and general noise.

The effect on social doesn’t much bother me much from a personal point of view as I only use Twitter – I value my privacy far too much to use either Facebook or Google +. It does bother me that another area of the internet in general may be polluted and lose what value it has for people, and the effect on search bothers me much more. It might sound odd coming from an SEO if you believe any of the badmouthing that our industry often gets, but I want the search results to be much cleaner; much easier to find quality results in all areas. To find information for informational queries, to find good suppliers for commercial queries, and to find proper technical results for technical queries. I can’t see how social signals can help produce that.

Google’s other answer seems to be ever-increasing personalisation of search, but this has never convinced me. When I search I want the widest range of potential information (within quality constraints of course) to choose from – I don’t want the search engine pandering to what I already know, or confirming any bias that may have crept into my opinions.When Jean-Luc Picard asks the Enterprise computer for information would he want only ideas that came from sources he had already approved? No, and neither do I.

Equally he probably wouldn’t want it influenced by the gossip from Ten Forward. I’d rather they keep search and social separate and fix search.

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