Saturday, May 21, 2011

SERP Alert: Google Social Search Goes Global

Google announced via its new official Search Blog that it is rolling out Social Search around the globe. This comes just days after Bing upped the ante in the social search game by integrating Facebook data in much more elaborate ways. Google’s social search, however, may prove useful in some cases, but you may see more content from strangers than you do from your real friends.

Does Google’s Social Search make results less relevant? Comment here. 

Google has been doing social search since 2009, and earlier this year it was updated to be more useful, with social results appearing throughout the SERP, as opposed to just in a cluster at the bottom of the SERP. Google says they’re mixed in based on relevance.

“For example, if you’re looking for information about low-light photography and your friend Marcin has written a blog post about it, that post may show up higher in your results with a clear annotation and picture of Marcin,” says Google software engineer Yohann Coppel.

“Social Search can help you find pages your friends have created, and it can also help you find links your contacts have shared on Twitter and other sites. If someone you’re connected to has publicly shared a link, we may show that link in your results with a clear annotation,” says Coppel. “So, if you’re looking for information about modern cooking and your colleague Adam shared a link about Modernist Cuisine, you’ll see an annotation and picture of Adam under the result. That way when you see Adam in the office, you’ll know he might be a good person to ask about his favorite modern cooking techniques.”

                            How Google Determines What to Show In Social Search Results

First of all, users must be logged into Google to get the benefits of social search. “If you’re signed in, Google makes a best guess about whose public content you may want to see in your results, including people from your Google Chat buddy list, your Google Contacts, the people you’re following in Google Reader and Buzz, and the networks you’ve linked from your Google profile or Google Account. For public networks like Twitter, Google finds your friends and sees who they’re publicly connected to as well,” explains Coppel.

Google deserves credit for giving users great deal of control about what people they’re using here, though they could still go further. You can go to your Google Dashboard, find the Social Circle and Content section, and edit accordingly. If you go to the “view social circle link” you can see every single person listed by:

  • Direct connections from your Google Chat buddies and contacts. It even shows you which of these people have content and which don’t. For the ones that do, it shows you which sites they have content on. One important thing to note: it actually does include Facebook Page content. For example, I’m connected to Danny Sullivan in my social circle, for example, and Google will show me updates from his Facebook page, as he has it linked to his Google Profile. What’s missing, however, is your personal Facebook network of friends (which in my opinion is the most valuable social data there currently is on the web, if you’re a Facebook user).
  • Direct connections from links through Google Profiles or Connected Accounts “For example, if you listed your Twitter account on your profile or if your Twitter posts appear in your public Buzz stream, then relevant content from people you follow on Twitter will show up in your search results,” Google explains in that section. “You can change these relationships by visiting the corresponding services and adding or removing connections.”
  • Secondary connections that are publicly associated with your direct connections. In other words – friends of friends (at least public friends of friends). There is a little less control here, unfortunately. You can’t remove these people from your social circle unless you remove the friend that’s connecting you to them.
    To me, this actually seems like a step backwards in relevancy of social search. You’re probably a lot less likely to care about what someone thinks just because they know someone you know, than you are if you actually know them. A lot of people don’t even care about what the people they actually do know think.
    Naturally, this is the biggest list and potential source of material for Google to draw from, making it more likely that you see results from people you don’t know than people you do.
A cool thing about the entire list is that you can click “show paths” next to any name that has content, and it will show you exactly how you’re connected. You can be linked to someone via Twitter, and if that person links their Twitter account to their Quora account, you might see their Quora content too. If that Quora account links to their Facebook account, you might see stuff from their Facebook account if you have permission to see that content (which if set to public or if you’re Facebook friends, you should be able to see it). 

Where are my friends?
I notice one gaping hole in Google’s social search strategy besides the lack of comprehensive Facebook integration (though it’s certainly connected to that). That would be the lack of a substantial amount of my actual closest friends. I can only assume that many users have a similar issue.

That’s exactly why Bing’s Facebook integration is a very important factor in its competition with Google. Bing, unlike Google, does tap into your actual Facebook friends for search relevancy (though there is plenty of room for improvement on Bing’s part as well). The Wajam browser extension is still currently a better solution to the problem, if yo ask me. It will add your Facebook and Twitter friends to your results on both Google and Bing. 

It is also for this reason (at least partially) that Google is competing more directly with Facebook now in social. Google wants users to develop the kinds of relationships among friends that people currently have on Facebook, on Google’s own network (which runs throughout various products, but ultimately the Google account, which is at the center of nearly everything – Gmail, YouTube, Buzz, Docs, Chrome OS, etc. The list goes on.

As long as Google and Facebook aren’t going to play nice together, Google needs to succeed in social to have the best search relevancy in the social part of search. And that part of search is clearly becoming more and more important. That’s simply one competitive advantage Bing has over Google right now. It’s also why Facebook itself is a threat to Google search in some ways.

It will be very interesting to see how far Google takes social search over time. We know Google is currently working on increasing its presence as a force in social, and the upcoming +1 button should play a significant part in that. As search gets more social, however, it presents new challenges for search engine optimization, and perhaps less significance on algorithm updates (like Panda) from the webmaster point of view. 

Social can not only be a signal of relevance on a personalized level, but if content is shared a lot, it can also be seen as a signal of quality, because people don’t share content that sucks, unless they’re doing it as a joke or using it as an example of what not to do (like I said, it’s just a “signal”). This is nothing new, but it shows the importance of diversifying your traffic sources.

If you rely heavily on search, as many of the big victims of the Panda update have, you will always be at the mercy of the search engines. If you can find ways to get more love from social networks and links from others, it’s bound to help you in search as well. 

Is Google’s social search helpful or does it miss the mark? Tell us what you think

Friday, May 13, 2011

Despite New Panda Guidelines, Google Still Burying Authoritative Results

Despite New Panda Guidelines, Google Still Burying Authoritative Results 

There are a lot of elements of Google’s Panda update to discuss, and we’ve certainly discussed many of them over the last few months, but let’s not lose sight of the reason the update was launched to begin with – to improve search quality. 

Do you think Google’s search results are better now? Tell us what you think.

While quality is often in the eye of the beholder, there are certain kinds of queries where the information being retrieved is simply more important than others. We’ve talked about this before, as it’s been a problem in some Google results.  One example we’ve looked at a few times is where an eHow article written by a freelance writer with no clear authority on cancer (and whose body of work includes a lot of plumbing-related articles) was ranking at the top of Googe’s results for the query “level 4 brain cancer” above numerous other sources that would seem to be of greater authority on such a subject. 

In fact, the article did get bumped down after the Panda update, but it does still rank number 2, followed by another result from eHow. Granted, this is just one example, and Demand Media has efforts in motion to improve its own content quality, but you get the point.
Queries related to things like health or law demand authoritative advice. Not SEO’d content.
We had a conversation with Mark Britton, founder and CEO of Avvo about this subject. Avvo is a site that offers Q&A forums where consumers can ask medical or legal questions and get responses from qualified doctors and lawyers. It provides apparently authoritative content in these two areas from certified professionals.

This seems like the kind of content that should be ranking well for a lot of these types of queries. Does it not? Britton thinks it’s “very important” for commentary from experts in the medical and legal fields to surface high in search results for relevant topics.
“There is a lot of noise both online and offline regarding health and legal issues,” he tells us. “This comes in the form of lay people, professional commentators and even celebrities who often offer advice that is well-intentioned but inherently inferior to that of a doctor or lawyer trained in the area. However, it is not always easy to get doctors and lawyers to speak. Some still look down on the Internet as a publishing or marketing vehicle. Others just downright fear it, as they have seen too many movies where someone says something on the Internet and they are subsequently hunted and killed by terrorist hackers.”

“There is always room for improvement — especially with our newer pages,” he says of Avvo’s own search rankings. “We just launched our doctor ratings directory and our free medical question and answer forum in November, and it will take some time for those pages to rank as well as our legally related pages.” Look at the results for a query like “Does type 2 diabetes shorten life expectancy?” Avvo’s page on the subject ranks on the second page, while eHow ranks at the top of the first. The Avvo result has actually fallen since I began writing this article. It used to be right below the number one result from eHow and the number 2 from Yahoo Answers.

EHow’s is an article (not very long by any means) by a guy whose bio says he “has been a freelance writer since 2007. He writes extensively in the fitness, mental health and travel sectors and his work has appeared in a range of print and online publications including Scazu Fitness and USAToday Travel Tips…[and] holds a Master of Arts in community psychology.”

Keep in mind that USA Today has a deal with Demand Media for travel tips. So that presumably means his Demand Media content is simply published by USA Today. Does “Master of Arts in community psychology” indicate more authority to answer a life/death question about type 2 diabetes than say a licensed and practicing MD? That’s who provided an answer on Avvo’s page, which just got pushed further down in the search results. 

If you change the query to something simpler like “type 2 diabetes life expectancy” eHow still ranks close to the top, and Avvo’s result slips to….get ready for it….page 18! That’s with various articles from places like eHow, EzineArticles and Suite101 (all victims of the Panda update) ranking ahead of it. Now, I’m not saying that Avvo’s result is necessarily the one ultimate result for this query and should necessarily be the highest ranked, but come on. Interestingly enough, the result was on page 3 for this query when I started writing the article (yesterday) and it’s slipped that much further into obscurity just since then. I wonder where it will be in another day. 

Google has given publishers a list of questions to ask themselves about their content, as guidelines the company goes by as it writes its algorithms. The very top one is “Would you trust the information presented in this article?” While neither of the articles provide any helpful links to sources of information, the Avvo article comes from a medical doctor. I think most people would find that slightly more trustworthy, even if the article isn’t as long or as well SEO’d. Here’s the eHow article. Here’s the Avvo one.

The second question on Google’s list is, “Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?”
While Google makes it clear that these questions aren’t actual ranking signals, they must be used to determine the signals at least, and you have to wonder just how much weight authority on a topic carries.Britton maintains that ALL of the site’s advice comes from qualified professionals, claiming that this is one of the site’s “greatest differentiators.”

“We CERTIFY every doctor and lawyer offering free advice on the site in two principle ways: First, we verify with the state licensing authorities that the answering doctors or lawyers are licensed and in good standing,” he explains. “Second, we rate the professionals from 1 (“Extreme Caution”) to 10 (“Superb”), which was unheard of prior to Avvo’s entry into the professional ratings arena. We are big believers that not every doctor or lawyer is ‘Super’ or ‘Best’ which was the steady-state in professional ratings for decades.”
“This was really just an extension of the Yellow Pages model, where the ‘recommended’ professional is the one paying the most money to advertise,” he continues. “But consumers are getting wise and demanding greater transparency regarding the qualifications of their doctors and lawyers.”

“We have three ratings that speak to the expertise of our contributors: The Avvo Rating, client/patient ratings and peer endorsements,” says Britton. “For the Avvo Rating, we start with the state licensing authorities and collect all the information we can regarding a professional. We then load that information into our proprietary web crawler, which we call ‘Hoover.’ Hoover goes out and finds all the additional information it can regarding the professional. We match the licensing data with the Hoover data and then we score it. The scoring is based on those indicators of the professional’s reputation, experience and quality of work.”

Britton says Avvo was not really affected by Google’s Panda update. “We saw a small dip, but things came back fairly quickly.”
“While I understand the intent of Google’s latest update, I’m not sure they entirely hit their mark,” he says. “We noticed a number of pure lead-generation sites – i.e., sites that are selling leads to the highest bidder — jump ahead of us in certain key terms, which is not good for consumers.”
Avvo encourages people to ask questions on the site, claiming it its Q&A boasts a 97% response rate. Avvo asked us to let readers know that in support of Skin Awareness Month, it is donating $5 to the Melanoma Research Foundation for every doctor review during the month of May. 

Should authority and certification of expertise carry greater weight in Google’s search rankings? Comment here.