Having tried and largely failed to take on Facebook and Twitter with Google+, Google is now looking for a new way to integrate social into search. Rather than producing its own network, it’s incorporating an existing channel into its search results, namely Twitter, in an attempt to produce richer and more real time rankings. The partnership was announced in March this year, and the results (Twitter feeds neatly integrated into the Search results) started rolling out in May in the United States.
The rollout still seems to be in a beta testing phase, so it’s a good opportunity to analyse the new functionality and work out how brands can take advantage.
If you search for a brand, person, or hashtag in Google on your mobile, you’re likely to find a new addition to the results. Now, rather than just feeding back webpages, images, and news stories, Google has started showing Tweets. The location of the box is changeable (depending on popularity, it appears at either the top or middle of the page), but the format’s always the same. Packaged in a small rectangle, the feed features the tweeter’s last five tweets which the user can scroll through, and the feed’s avatar and name, which can be clicked to take the user through to Twitter itself.
Early in its rollout, the functionality seemed limited to the super brands (Coca-Cola, Google itself) and the very famous (Barack Obama, Taylor Swift), but it’s now started rolling out to smaller brands and non-famous people (including me!). Hashtags are also included, though currently only the very popular ones. For example, if you search Google for a hashtag related to a brand or campaign, it’s unlikely to appear unless it’s been adopted by a huge number of people. But more generic tags, such as #motivationmonday, are appearing at the very top of the results.
Why is this important?
Google has been trying to tap into the power of social media for years. This development is a small step, but it could lead to much bigger things, and it’s already been suggested that there’s a potential Google buyout of Twitter in the offing. Such deal may ultimately be too costly for Google, but it would bring numerous benefits, including a mobile-optimised advertising platform and a firm foot in the social sphere.
It’s the access to newer, more granular, and sentiment-driven data that would be the biggest boon though. Twitter data could tell Google’s algorithms what the search engine alone can’t: not just what people like, but why they like it. This has been an aim of Google’s since 2009, when then Head of Search Marissa Mayer said: “You can ask: ‘Is this conference today any good? Is it warmer in San Francisco than it is in Silicon Valley?’ You can actually look at tweets and see those sorts of patterns, so there’s a lot of useful information about real time and your actions that we think will ultimately reinvent search.”
That this suggestion remains prominent in Google’s mind six years later proves just how important it is, and just how great the potential benefits to both Google and brands could be.
What does it mean for brands?
Social and Search have been slowly merging for a number of years, and this is yet another step in that direction. The impact will be slow to begin with, but could be significant in the long term. Too often, brands think of the two as separate spheres, and that social media offers engagement value that websites simply can’t. This has led to a fragmented approach that’s likely to come to an end if the partnership between Google and Twitter gains traction.
For example, if a brand sets up a Twitter-only competition that makes heavy use of a hashtag, there’s now the potential to get that hashtag ranking in Google. However, it’s likely that this couldn’t be achieved through Twitter alone. Google will be looking at a number of signals, and one of those is likely to be what it reads from a brand’s site. By bringing the site into the fold, a brand will increase chances of ranking well and therefore enhancing awareness. It’ll be slow at first, but potentially could dramatically alter the way digital activities are organised.
What do brands need to do?
At the moment, it’s unclear exactly how both Google and Twitter are approaching this. Since the early days of rollout, more feeds are appearing, with a number of brands’ feeds now appearing when their name is searched for. It’s all speculation, but it’s a safe bet that number of followers and whether or not an account is verified are key signals Google is using to determine quality and relevance. Equally, the frequency of posts and level of engagement those posts receive will likely feed into the overall judgement.
This is less certain, but Google could also be using a brand’s website as a key indicator; how though is difficult to say. As feeds are currently only appearing on mobile, a site’s responsiveness is likely to play a part. After all, if a brand’s site is mobile unfriendly, Google may deem the brand as a whole to be likewise. It’s also possible that the number of views a site receives on mobile devices will play a part, with Google taking that as an indicator of the brand’s relevance in the mobile experience. Beyond that, a link between a brand’s site and its Twitter feed would also be beneficial, as this will help Google build an association.
This is very much an open playing field at the moment and there’s little solid information on where the Twitter-Google partnership will lead, and what technical and optimisation actions brands need to take to take advantage. What is clear though is that Google will continue to place strong emphasis on the link between Social and Search, and that a holistic approach is the best way to succeed going forwards.
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If you found this article interesting, why not take a look at our post about Google’s latest algorithm update regarding taking mobile usability as a ranking factor. Simply click on the image below: