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Social Search in the Post Google+ World: What's Next?

Alex Membrillo
Social Search in the Post Google+ World: What's Next?

On July 27, Google VP Bradley Horowitz announced that Google+ is no longer required for YouTube login: "We want to formally retire the notion that a Google+ membership is required for anything at Google ... other than using Google+ itself.” With this announcement, it’s clear that Google+ has officially being dismantled, a trend that digital marketers predicted for over the last year. And while Google+ may not be completely going the way of Google Buzz (yet), it’s no longer a major factor for social media or search marketers.

Looking back, it’s clear that as a competitor to Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent LinkedIn), Google+ never really stood a chance. The network’s design and terminology were downright awkward – remember circles and sparks?

Despite the network’s early hype and rapid growth, Google’s ambitious plans to unite all its different products under the Google+ umbrella seemed doomed from the start. After all, it’s hard to have a successful social network if no one is actually social on it. According to a report on Nasdaq.com, at least 90% of the profiles on Google+ contain nothing at all and simply exist as a way to log into Google’s different services. Despite boasting more than 2.2 billion Google+ profiles, the network was truly a ghost town with little to no engagement and activity.

In March, Google announced that it would split the platform into two separate services called Photos and Streams, with Hangouts continuing as a standalone messaging and video conferencing service. Horowitz’s most recent announcement that YouTubers can now de-merge their accounts from Google+ and return to using their own alias is a definitive deathblow to the network. With the final nail nearly in the Google+ coffin, what does this mean for the intersection of search and social marketing?

The Slow Death of Social Search and Google+

A “social search” is a search where a user’s search results are tied to that user’s social network graph. In essence, the searcher sees unique results that are shaped by the interests of his social network friends. Google introduced its beta version of social search back in 2010, eventually rolling it out to all signed-in users. The idea was good in theory: all those links, articles and reviews we share on social media could make our search results more relevant. In reality, it let to some pretty cluttered search results and let users we never interact with on a regular basis (but were still part of our social networks) exert undo influence over search results.

By 2012, Google had rolled out “Search Plus Your World,” bringing together Google+ and search results all in one. Following a search, a little box would appear on the side of the screen with Google+ accounts that Google deemed as “experts” on a subject matter.

While “Search Plus Your World” seemed like a good idea in theory, it proved controversial in practice. Just because I’m friends with Ryan from high school chemistry class on Facebook doesn’t mean that his opinions align with what I’m looking for in a Google search. (Sorry, Ryan.) By the end of 2014, Google+ was on life support with the search giant tacitly acknowledging the failure of its foray into social search. While social signals may still play a small role in search results, a business’s aggregate reviews and rankings are far more important.

Online Reviews: The New ‘Social Search’ Influencer?

While the original concept of “social search” is effectively dead, reviews and rankings are more important than ever, especially for local search results. Ninety percent of customers say their buying decisions are influenced by online reviews. Facebook beat out both Yelp and other online review sites as the single most important resource for finding positive reviews that influenced purchasing decisions, according to the survey sponsored by ZenDesk.

Prospective customers don’t spend a lot of time wading through online reviews: 67% report reading six reviews or less before they form an opinion about a given business. This could mean bad news for your business should it happen to have a few less-than-flattering reviews at the top of an otherwise lengthy list of glowing praise.

While the individual opinions of social network users may no longer influence search results, group opinions definitely matter. Positive (and negative) reviews can show up when a customer searches for your business, even if the customer doesn’t include the word “reviews” in their initial search. Simply typing in a business name will bring up reviews underneath the business’ Google business listing.

Anytime someone leaves a Google+ review of your business, this information can automatically be pulled and listed underneath your business’s website in search engine results. And while it’s difficult to determine to what extent negative or positive reviews affect search engine rankings, local search results do seem to favor highly ranked businesses.

Staying on top of your online reputation is critical to gaining an edge in search results. Proactive online reputation management includes keeping a close eye on reviews (services like ReviewPush offer multi-site monitoring), responding promptly and professionally to anything negative that’s posted, and engaging social influencers and brand ambassadors to build positive word of mouth offline and online.

Google+ and social search may be on their way out, but when it comes to SERP influence, online reviews are here to stay. What do you think is next for social search now that Google+ is on its way out? Let us know in the comments.

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Alex Membrillo doesn’t believe in a one night stand approach to marketing but rather a long term relationship with exponential growth based on strategy and insight. Please take some time to find out more about Cardinal Web Solutions, Your Digital Strategy Agency.
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