Social Search: Dead On Arrival? Or On Life Support?

April 17, 2012 by  
Filed under Link Building

It’s the uber-powerful search marketing signal…  and marketers sabotaging it even before it’s had a chance to find a toe-hold.

I’m talking about ‘Social Search’, the rising trend of social media-driven local search signals and the callous, narrow-minded and (in some eyes) borderline unethical way in which this potentially useful tool is being perverted by unknowing and uncaring people who spam the signal with noise in the name of “effective SEO”.

Before explaining further, let me ask you a few quick questions:

  • Have you ever bought ‘+1s’ on Google for your (client’s) content?
  • Have you ordered ‘Likes’ on Facebook in the same way?
  • Have you tried to recruit teams to ‘vote’ your content up on social networks?
  • Have you bought a gig that promises thousands of Twitter followers?

If you answered “Yes” to any of them, did you pause to think (either before or after) about the impact of your action on the single most powerful ‘search marketing signal’ today - “Social-Powered Local Search”?

Do You Like Chocolate Muffins?

Imagine this scenario…

You’re walking down a busy street in New York City, and suddenly you have a craving for a chocolate muffin. You pull out your iPhone, type in “chocolate muffin New York” – and the magic of search kicks in. Your mobile device’s GPS tracker locates you instantly, finds a list of bakeries and coffee-houses nearby that sell muffins, and presents them for you to select from.

Beside (or beneath) each result is an icon. A starry icon, which in a universally understood language, rates the result as ‘Great’, ‘Not so hot’ and ‘Terrible’ – through the simple expedient of yellow colored stars.

You pick the 5-star rated bakery, get directions to it from Google Maps, and arrive at the store. You bite into the muffin and the delighted grin you wore as you stepped in turns into a wry grimace of dismay.

It tastes awful!

You toss the rest of the pastry into a garbage can around the corner, muttering a curse about your once-favorite search engine that ‘recommended’ this trash as a top rated resource.

Would you like that experience if it happened to you? Not just once, but over and over again?

Of course not. But the danger of it becoming more than a random occurrence grows every day, as online marketers eagerly embrace the practice of ‘buying votes’ to game Google’s social-driven search algorithm.

Would Google enjoy this happening to millions of their users?

Surely not. And the ‘slap’ when it comes will resound and echo around the Web – leaving many businesses with painful red faces!

Would users mindlessly trust “personalized ratings” once they are more widely and severely abused?

No. The ‘recommendation era’ will melt away faster than a snowball in the Sahara desert!

Would your prospects still view your business or brand the same way if they found out that YOU were doing this to them?

Hmm… Makes you think, doesn’t it?!

Look, I’m not trying to be provocative. My intent is to get you to think critically about practices that are prevalent in the marketplace, yet potentially damaging over time. Damaging not only to the SEO industry, but also to other facets of digital marketing, including social media marketing and communications consulting.

An Ethical SEO Conundrum

The ethical line in SEO has always been blurred. Some people consider any form of search engine optimization to be unethical and manipulative of “natural” merit-driven results. Others think of ‘white hat’ SEO as being ok, while raising their eyebrows or frowning in disapproval at ‘black hat’ tactics. And some follow a rule book with just one entry – “Anything goes; just get to the top”.

Because Google is now modifying rankings on search engine result pages based on +1s or tweets or Facebook ‘likes’, businesses are tempted to think about “paying” for these votes through various incentives – discounts, prizes in contests, and more.

Don’t get me wrong, those doing it (or thinking about it) are not unscrupulous entrepreneurs. They know that manipulative tactics such as buying links falls under the head of “black hat SEO” and runs the risk of being blacklisted by Google. They just don’t see buying social SEO votes as being the same kettle of fish!

(What do you think? Is it the same wine in a different bottle – or not? Hold that thought as you read along!)

Here’s how the practice looks from where I stand.

Google’s algorithm looks at back links as a vote for the quality, value and utility of content. If many sites link back to a resource, it is probably worthy of being shared. If an authoritative Web resource links back to it, the quality is likely to be very good. After all, why would an authority site link out to worthless content?

The logic behind that algorithm was skewed by people who subverted it through “buying” (paying for, or negotiating, bartering, and even sneaking in) links to undeserving sites from authoritative websites.

Because they did it aggressively and in bulk, these sites showed up higher in the automated ranking system by winning more ‘votes’ than other contenders (who let their votes come in organically and naturally). Scum – and not cream – rose to the top!

Now think about the practice of incentivized social votes in the same light. By arm-twisting or baiting or tricking an unwary user base to +1, like or tweet about one’s business, product or brand, it is possible to skew the social-media weighted algorithm in your favor, at least until you’re exposed. By actually going shopping to buy such votes, you can gain even more control over their number and outcome… or even make the process scalable. See Companies Pay ‘Social Media Mercenaries’ To Tout Products.

Businesses are “bribing” people who give them a ‘social vote’ with special and unique advantages. Reduced costs on store items, or access to an exclusive download, or the chance to win a contest (where the price of entry is to recommend a specific product or service) are all subtle ways to induce a social vote.

But isn’t this very similar to paying people for a positive review or endorsement or testimonial?

In the distance, one sees the faint glimmer of a warning red flag. It draws attention to important (and disturbing) questions about ethics, legality and manipulation of Google’s search algorithms.

As a powerful driver of this unsavory engine is the economic reality of being on top of search results. Having greater impact upon prospects engaged in an early stage of the “research and buying” cycle. Being positioned right where search engines play a major role.

Social Search Spamming: Where Does This Track Lead?

In the short term, for sure, there are profits and benefits to reap.

  • You’ll look like a thought leader or respected authority in your field.
  • You’ll come across as trusted, learned and widely followed.
  • You’ll rank higher on a Google search, which helps build trust quickly.
  • You’ll drive more traffic, make more sales, bank more profit.
  • You’ll reach more prospects in your target market.

But what happens later on? To what end or purpose do these fake social votes eventually lead a business?

Let’s look at the history of back links for some lessons. Google permitted spammy link building for far too long, before cracking down hard.

In response, tricks just grew sneakier and more complex. Spreading links across different IP address C-blocks, various hosting companies and using article marketing, social bookmarking, fake forum profiles and the sort to build ‘untraceable’ back links to online resources – all of this worked to beat the system.

Not surprisingly, Google is fighting the spam by taking a different approach. They now require verification. They insist that you (and every other user) prove that you’re a real person. To be on Google+ you must verify your identity. Facebook is doing something similar. This is new, edgy, and seemingly effective.

But something else is happening side by side. There’s an ethical dilemma being side-stepped or ignored, but it’s clamoring for attention.

When a business pays (or coerces) people to recommend something in order to show up in good light to their other prospects, aren’t they also perceived by those in the know as liars and cheats?

There’s an erosion of trust. They are manipulating facts and perceptions. It’s no longer a ‘win-win’ situation.  Someone is being deceived… and it’s you, dear reader!  (And me.)

So how exactly is this happening?

Businesses (and SEO/social consultants who guide them) are recruiting real people to break the back of this quality-maintaining initiative by Google… and buying social votes!

In a disturbing article, A Dark Force, Unleashed Online, an Associate Professor at University of California, Santa Barbara has exposed the dirty underbelly of scamming on social media. The report spotlights the shady practices of SEO specialists who focus more on profits than on how they are achieved.

From an SEO perspective, violating Google’s guidelines may not seem like a criminal act. Yet when you consider how Google offers no “fair trial”, and that your punishment could be harsh (being thrown out of the search results), you are potentially risking your client’s business ruin.

Google is crucial for many businesses. As an SEO advisor, are you sure you can confidently recommend going down a path that may lead to such a disaster? That’s like laying the foundation of a huge skyscraper in quicksand!

The Future Of Social Signals

Here’s some more food for thought.

Once the general public becomes aware of this practice, how will they view social signals in the future?

Will they be affected at all? Or will they factor it into their decision making process? (“Oh, not ANOTHER fake popularity contest… ignore!”)

Notice that I’m not pointing at the elephant in the room. You may or may not believe that “building votes like you build links” is ethical. You may never try to manipulate search results by such means (or recommend that others do). That’s a personal choice.

But what if everyone was doing these things, and not getting caught. Would it still work to deliver the value you’re seeking?

It might seem as if similar activities in building up back link portfolios hasn’t harmed too many practitioners. But the recent Panda update dealt many websites a death blow and the hardest hit were link manipulators who violated the guidelines.

What’s to say social media extortionists won’t be next?

At best, businesses going this route will be stepping through a virtual minefield. Manipulating social votes may go undetected, and even be acceptable behavior today. But when the very premise relies on tricking a consumer or end-user into believing something contrary to the truth, is the strategy itself sound and reliable?

Or are you just riding hell for leather into the flames of self-destruction?

Look, I’m not saying that social marketing initiatives are by themselves uniformly bad, unethical or condemnable.

The main intention of all marketing is to sell more. And by turning strangers into friends, and friends into paying customers, giving your target market access into your personal social circles on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn and other social networks, you can give yourself a serious competitive advantage. It can help you gain recognition and trust, and aid in marketing your brand, product or service with your unique stamp of quality.

When this quality attracts likes and +1s from ecstatic, delighted prospects, it serves as a strong signal of excellence and trustworthiness. If some of these fans have a large following, this can go viral quickly.

My friend and colleague Geir Ellefsen at Edgy SEO is among many elite SEO consultants who think “personalized search” is the next ‘Big Thing’ (I agree! It is). It takes this ripple effect to a new, higher, individualized dimension with proportionately greater impact.

That’s what makes it more important than ever before to devise your integrated social media strategy. The meld of SEO and social media is the future of ‘Social Search’.

That’s where the temptation to stray into the gray zone rears its seductive head! It’s a short hop, step and jump from “link building” to “people building” (or if you prefer the phrase, “Crowd Turfing”). But remember, what happens on the Internet stays in the search engines – forever!

While it may look “innocent” and “harmless” to try a few tricks, Google probably doesn’t much care to view your shenanigans with sympathy or understanding – especially when their credibility in users’ eyes is tarnished by such behavior.

Let’s not be naive. What you do today might harm you tomorrow. Being caught cheating in social media and SEO today may not mean much right now – but in the future, the same attitude and actions can ruin your credibility and trust with your prospects and potential customers.

Are Businesses Taking Advantage Of You?

As consumers, too, we need to be aware of how businesses are using our votes to win a search engine ranking war – by indirectly influencing our networks who are ‘forced’ to live with the consequences of our liking, plusing and tweeting.

All the social recommendation we proffer so generously (and even thoughtlessly) affects how search engine ranking algorithms rate the business. Which means the more influential you are in social media, the greater is your responsibility to your networked community.

A single tweet from an opinion leader can reach and engage thousands of people within seconds. Social media further amplifies the signal and spreads it out in ever-widening ripples.

Content scrapers, and other techniques used to build quick and easy content, are harvesting tweets, blog posts and social media conversations for their Adsense-monetized websites. Many of these sites use the “rel-follow” tag, passing link juice to the business’ website from which they have “borrowed” content. Syndicated content (RSS) is often published on many other online resources, providing even more back links from distributed social conversations.

These forms of “distributed endorsement” impact search rankings, rocketing the business to the top of SERPs for profitable business-critical keywords and phrases, further extending the message’s viewership. See How Much Does SEO Cost? 3 Analogies To Help You Determine Its Value for more.

Since search engines affect people’s decisions in a buying situation, winning this war is important.  The problem is that the strategy and approach must be future-proof, not only against any penalties, but also in safeguarding the brand’s reputation and image.

The only solution that will work over time while harnessing the power of social signals is one that is rooted in a mix of social media and search marketing expertise.

SEO and Social Media departments need to work together. Web development teams must be aware that rich snippets like author tag and using relevant identifiers for “reviews“, “recipes” and more, is helpful in getting those all-important stars and credits on Google SERPs at the moment.

Publishing fresh content regularly, and annotating it with “rel-author” and “rel-me” tags following Google’s own instructions, becomes very important. It helps to highlight shared content, and content owned by people inside your circles.

Businesses and individuals who have many people in their Google Plus Circles all of a sudden have a big advantage. Their results on SERPs get wider visibility and generate more buzz.

Social Search: Rich snippets  author tag example

Rich snippets, however, are also open to manipulation. Services exist that offer to sell you +1s, hundreds of followers, and other things that will act like steroids on social signal algorithms.

The minute Google attempted to make search results cleaner and cut down on spam, these services mushroomed like weeds in a neglected garden, offering to work for dirt cheap prices, enticing webmasters to succumb to the easy manipulation of social search results.

That’s sad.

Even before Google’s Social Search is out of ‘beta’, the spammers are in full control. $5 gets you 500 new Twitter followers, a few hundred Google Circle followers, the same number of Facebook likes  and more can be purchased for a few extra bucks!

Even unique IP addresses and verified Google accounts are up for sale. Advanced tactics are being used and the methods are pretty sophisticated. They are so well done that it’s likely to be very hard for Google to spot the fake accounts from legitimate ones.

Social search SEO spam example

Is Gaming Social Search “Okay”?

“But how can this be wrong? Everyone else is doing it!”

Maybe. After all, black hat SEO was not “unethical” before people actually understood what was going on.

It may help to view it through the eyes of a prospective customer. Say, a single young lady traveling in Europe and looking for a decent hotel to stay in.

She’s browsing search results, relies on reviews and social signals to guide her to the best choice.  She’s suckered into registering at a sleazy inn that’s ranked at the top, proudly displays many rave reviews, and has 5 star ratings, all of which were faked or purchased for a few pennies apiece from slave-wage workers in China, India or Bangladesh who have never even heard about the place!

Now imagine that someone is you. Not a pleasant thought, huh?

Yet, you can’t afford to ignore the tactics others are using against you, often with deadly effect.

After all, there are companies out there who are paying ‘social media mercenaries’ to beat you out of the SERPs. Your competition might be crushing you by doing exactly those things. And after all, claiming the top 3 rankings on Google’s search results page is still the highest priority for any SEO advisor who works with clients.

The difference in sales, revenue and bottom line profit runs to several hundred percent. Throw in social signals and the inclusion of a thumbnail photo, star ratings or number of +1 likes right on the SERP, and you’re looking at serious boosts CTR, and even subsequent conversion rates.

So what does a SEO consultant do in this situation? What would you do?  Please share your thoughts on these questions… or feel free to ask more of your own.

  • Do the high stakes justify pushing the envelope and even cutting corners, taking risks?
  • What if people eventually come to know about what you’re doing – will that affect you (or your client’s business/brand)?
  • Are incentivized reviews and votes likely to be considered unethical before too long?
  • Or even illegal under marketing laws that crack down on deceptive, misleading and untruthful promotional methods?
  • Will this be a slippery slope down which you’ll slide relentlessly, where you cross over from shady link building techniques to outright lying and cheating?

I’m sure that you’ve got some thoughts and opinions about these issues and others related to social search. Please share them in a comment below.

Finally, I’ll leave you with some provocative questions, the answers to which may well end up setting the tone for the future of social search if they are adopted and embraced as “best practices” by our SEO community as a whole.

Here’s your chance to play advocate for the SEO industry, and put out your best ideas for discussion and debate. Answer any of these questions (or even all of them) in the comments!

  • If you were the spokesperson for the SEO industry, what would your stand on this issue of manipulating Social Search results be – and why?
  • If you were in charge of Google’s Social Search initiative, what would you do to prevent spammers, liars and ill-intentioned folks from ruining the search experience and skewing the search results?
  • Do you have any suggestions for methods, techniques or tools they should incorporate into their algorithms in the future?
  • How do you yourself view – and use – Social Search?  Tell us your experiences, good or bad.
  • As an SEO consultant, how do you handle Social Search for your clients?

Here’s looking forward to a thought-provoking discussion about these important issues we face as SEO and social media specialists and as business owners seeking to effectively implement these powerful forces into our online marketing.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Search Social

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