Invasion of the results snatchers: The Many Ways Google+ invades Google Search (and how to learn to love it)


SEO For Google+ & Google Search panel @ SMX West 2012
Figure 1: SEO For Google+ & Google Search panel @ SMX West 2012: Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land; Sean Carlos, Antezeta Web Marketing; Janet Driscoll Miller, Search Mojo; Daniel Dulitz, Google; Monica Wright, Search Engine Land & Marketing Land (Photo: SMX)

The article that follows is based on a speech I gave at the web marketing conference SMX West. Jump to the slides.

Since Google+ launched in the summer of 2011, Google+ has become increasingly integrated into Google Search. This integration, what some might term an invasion of Google Search by Google+, has significant implications for the promotion of people, products and services.

Let’s take a look at the current state of Google+ / Google Search integration to better understand both the opportunities, as well as the risks, this presents us as web marketers.

Google Direct Connect: Search for Google+ Business Pages

Google+ pages suggestions appear as user types +eco
Figure 2: Google+ pages suggestions appear as user types +eco

A good starting point is the opening of Google+ to businesses with the release of Google+ pages for businesses in November 2011. At the same time, Google introduced a new type of search, called Direct Connect. Direct Connect allows searchers to focus their Google search on Google+ pages. If a user begins their query with a +, Google will suggest Google+ pages as the user types. Unlike normal queries, Google doesn’t display instant search results on the screen below the search box. Users who select one of the suggested Google+ pages will be brought directly to the company’s Google+ page, thus bypassing the normal search results. This is a potential boon to companies facing pesky reputation management issues, yet on sober reflection, how likely is it that Google search users are going to prefix their query with a plus sign? This aspect of Google+ is arguably the least invasive to date, if we ignore the fact that Google changed the historic behavior of the + search operator in order to launch Direct Connect Searches.

Users logged into Google+ who do land on a company’s Google+ page will be invited to add the Google+ page to their circles – increasing the company’s reach both within Google+ as well as in Google Search. Marketers should also note that the company motto which displays under the page name in the Google search suggestion box is taken directly from the page profile, thus easy to control.

To participate in Google Direct Connect, a company needs to cross-link its website to its Google+ page. Google offers a Google+ badge that companies can put on their websites, but the badge is not required to enable Google Direct Connect. Google Direct Connect is available to most users, whether they’re logged in to a Google service or not, in much of the world. It does appear that Google has not yet enabled Google Direct Connect for searches made using Asian characters.

Google+ page as a super sitelink: the navigational search

Many searches are navigational in nature, a user wants to find a specific website. In these types of searches, Google often displays a website’s home page together with an indented menu of links to specific areas of the site, known as sitelinks.

Google+ Super sitelink
Figure 3: Google+ Page and Post appear in navigational query results

In this example, we note the addition of a new type of sitelink under the site search result, a super sitelink if you will. Unlike the other navigational links, this link leads not to the company’s website but rather to the company’s Google+ page. The snippet which appears under the link title is taken from the latest update to the company’s Google+ page. Companies using Google+ are going to want to keep in mind that their latest post may appear much more prominently in Google search results than they had imagined – and craft updates accordingly.

The Google+ super site-link began to appear about a week after Google introduced Google Direct Connect. In some cases, Google also displays a duplicate search result with the company’s Google+ page, allowing a company to occupy a significant amount of the search results page real estate. For companies that find Google+ a profitable platform to engage their customers and potential customers, this additional visibility may be a great gift. Others may want to consider the risk of promoting their Google+ presence, where they’re a guest in somebody else’s home, to the detriment of their own home on the web. Facebook’s moves to make companies pay if they want their followers to actually see updates should put companies on warning.

If a user is logged into Google+ as they search Google, Google will allow them to add the Google+ page to their circles from within the Google search results.

Google+ and people searches

Google+ people profiles appear in Google Autocomplete suggestions
Figure 4: Google+ people profiles appear in Google Autocomplete suggestions

Other common searches are for people, from Account Executives to Executive Directors. It may come as no surprise then that Google wants Google+ to provide the definitive answer to searches for people. With the launch of Google Search Plus Your World in January 2012, Google began feature Google+ profiles prominently in Google search, both as search suggestions which appear as a user types as well as Google search results. According to the Google documentation, profiles should appear as autocomplete suggestions for all users, logged in or not, although at the moment it only occurs if a user is logged in, and then just for searches on Google.com.

At first glance, the display of Google+ profiles seems similar to Google Direct Connect, although in reality profile integration differs from Direct Connect in several ways. Profiles appear as suggestions without the user having use any special search syntax. Google does display instant search results as the user types a query which triggers profile suggestions. Finally, when a user selects a Google+ profile from the query box, they’re taken to a page of Google search results which prominently feature the Google+ profile, rather than directly to the profile on Google+. The search query is displayed with an x to allow the user to easily clear the query box. A user can also refine the query by adding additional keywords. Users logged in to Google+ have the option to add the person to their circles directly from the search results. Circle information is displayed if the searcher already follow the person.

Google+ profiles do appear to be an interesting reputation management option when there is a desire to rather predictably occupy the search results real estate for a person’s name. This option does come at a cost: the promotion of Google+ over a person’s own website or professional profile on LinkedIn or even Facebook. For those who do want to use Google+ to engage with others but don’t want to risk diverting search traffic for their name to Google+, Google provides an option to exclude Google+ profiles from search engine indexing. To the best of my knowledge, this option is not currently available for Google+ pages. Regardless, a person should insure they’ve added links to their own websites on their Google+ profile. After all, it isn’t every day that you can add a link to your site from Google.com, nofollow-ed or not.

Informational searches and authorship attribution

Other common searches are informational in nature, a person is looking to inform themselves about something. In June 2011 Google provided authors of articles a great way to enrich the search engine results snippet for their articles. Google will display the author’s photo and a link to their profile, allowing a result to stand out from the crowd and hopefully garner greater click-through. Author snippets are very similar to the schema.org rich snippets supported by Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yandex for events and other entity types – but with a key limitation: Google has tied authorship attribution snippets to Google+.

Google's authorship snippet, tied to Google+
Figure 5: Google’s authorship snippet, tied to Google+

The author byline links directly to the author’s Google+ profile and this cannot be changed. A “more” link performs a new Google search whose results prominently feature the author’s Google+ profile. Authorship snippets are available for searches in English on Google.com and on Google News. To participate, an author needs to link their articles to their Google+ profile. There are several ways to do this, some better than others. As is the case with rich snippets, Google enables author snippets at its own discretion, presumably based on a calculation of an author’s authority.

Topic search? Google+ has some people and pages to suggest


Figure 6: Suggested People and Pages from Google+ displacing AdWords

Google even wants to provide Google+ answers to generic topic searches as seen in the search for airlines. A related people and pages box appears on the upper right. For each suggestion, Google displays the number of people who have circled the page or person, together with a link to Google+. A “more” option allows Google search users to look for other Google+ people and pages matching their query by taking them right to a Google+ search results page. AdWords advertisers will note that the related people and pages box will move many ads down below the page fold.

Google+ people and page suggestions appear for brands too!

Related People and Pages for a Brand search
Figure 7: Related People and Pages for a Brand search

People and page suggestions also can appear for brand searches, presenting marketers with some interesting challenges. In the case of Ford, an employee gets almost equal billing with the company itself. That might be fine for companies that personalize their interaction with consumers (think of General Mills’ admittedly fictitious Betty Crocker), but companies will want to review who and what shows up, with an eye to optimizing where appropriate.

Related people and pages Google+ suggestions can show up for professional services queries, such as realtor. Here again Google may have to work out some relevancy issues as a search from Irvine California yielded suggestions from Michigan and North Carolina, unlikely to be useful in what is very much a location based industry.

Related people and pages Google+ suggestions are initially only available for searches on Google.com.

Individual Google+ posts appear for long tail queries

Even individual Google+ posts can appear in Google search results for anonymous users, although this currently seems to be limited to what would definitely be long tail queries. If a user is logged in, they may see an expanded version of the result.

+1 endorsements have Google+ ties, too

Google +1 endorsements in Adwords may be tied to Google+ page
Figure 8: Google +1 endorsements in Adwords may be tied to Google+ page

Google’s +1 endorsements are also tied to Google+ in several ways. By default +1 counts for a search result reflect the number of actual plus ones the web page has accrued, irrespective of whether it is an ad or an organic result. AdWords advertisers have an option, called Social Extensions, to display the +1 count for their Google+ page in their ads instead of the actual landing page count. In this particular case, where the landing page has many more +1s than the Google+ page, its not so clear if AdWords Social Extensions make sense or just create confusion.

Google+ invades the Google home page

Since its inception, the Google home page has been know for its zen-like simplicity. Google has occasionally promoted some of its own products with text links on the home page, and there have been interactive doodles like PacMan. In this context, its hard to not see the addition of a “post to Google+” box on Google’s home page as a significant departure from past practice, and a further confirmation of Google’s commitment to Google+.

The price of participation: a Faustian bargain?

Google offers marketers many opportunities to grab more search results real estate, as long as they’re willing to accept Google+ as their landing page. That may well be a price worth paying if Google+ can prove to provide value as a piazza to effectively engage customers and potential customers. Yet Google+ presents the same problem as other social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook: someone else dictates the rules of the house, and they can change those rules at any time.

It is also unclear how searchers are responding to the appearance of Google+ in Google search results – there’s no way for marketers to track visits to their Google+ pages nor is Google providing any data on user behavior. It is easy to imagine that companies that don’t embrace Google+ will do so at their own risk as Google continues to aggressively promote Google+. Yet companies that do embrace Google+ need to keep their ROI end game in mind.

Google+ Future

In the immediate future we can expect further Google+ experimentation and evolution. Google may decrease the number of related pages and people suggestion boxes if the suggestions prove to have a detrimental impact on AdWords. Google has already reduced the number of Google+ posts which display in a “super sitelink” from two to one, so it is realistic to expect more fine tuning of the Google+ / Google search integration already introduced. Google has said that real time results would eventually return – so it won’t be too much of a surprise when this happens. Most Google+ integration has not yet been released internationally, with Google Direct Connect being a notable exception. That Google is promoting Google+ to the exclusion of Twitter, Facebook and other social networks is likely to invite FTC & EU anti-trust scrutiny due to Google’s effective monopoly in many of the markets in which it operates.

A few Google+ Visibility Tips

  • Ensure well completed Google+ page and people profile(s)
  • Post compelling content, often
  • Remember that sharing is fundamental
  • Get circled
  • Weed out imposters / squatters

View the entire slide set from my SMX presentation


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About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 13 & 14 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.