Not too long ago, Greg Jarboe wrote up the results of a study I did showing that Google+ shared links don't appear to impact SEO. This study focuses on the impact of Google+ shared links when they occur in isolation. It also focuses on "non-personalized" results.
However, Google+ does impact search results in several ways.
The most straightforward way Google+ impacts search results is with personalization. For example, if someone is following you on Google+, the chances that they will see your posts in Google's search results go way up. To illustrate, let's look at an example:
The highlighted listing shown ranks in position 2 in the organic search results, but ranks only in position 12 when I do an incognito search. This is a big impact! The reason for the change in the personalized results is that four people I follow on Google+ have +1'ed the content.
Let's look at my previous column on Search Engine Watch:
More than 1,000 people +1'ed this content. Not only is this article more likely to show up for them, but it's also more likely to show up for everyone they follow! This means that there are two bites at this apple already:
- People who follow me on Google+ are more likely to see it.
- People who follow anyone who +1's the content are more likely to see it.
This is already a very big deal. If you can build a strong audience of your own, or if major influencers in your market space +1 or share the content, this can get you a lot of exposure to your target market.
In addition, it appears that people you exchange Gmails with can also create this type of connection that leads to the personalization of results (source: Rand Fishkin in this Whiteboard Friday).
Google+ Post in the SERPs
This is one way that Google+ goes beyond personalization. Look at the fourth result for this query, which is a Google+ post by Mark Traphagen (highlighted by the red "1"):
This came up even though I did the search in incognito mode. In addition, the second result (highlighted by the red "2") is for a YouTube video of a Hangout on Air event that I did on Google+.
These are showing up for people who aren't logged in. This is content originally created in Google+ ranking highly in the results. This is powerful stuff!
Can Google+ Impact Non-Personalized Rankings of Content Created Off Platform?
That is a great question, and a complex one. The study I referenced above suggests that there is no impact, but remember, the study tested a scenario in which there were no other corroborating signals to the content. What I mean by that is that there were no links (internal or external) to the tested content. In addition, shares, +1s, and comments to the content were actively discouraged. So this only suggests that the Google+ shared links in total isolation didn't impact rankings.
Therefore, it is still possible that Google+ shared links do have an impact on the search results when combined with other signals. While this is impossible to prove, it remains a possibility. The key to this discussion is to realize that some links in Google+ are in fact "followed" links (credit to Joshua Berg for his excellent research work in this area):
Google is allowing this PageRank to flow for a reason. In fact, a change in the PageRank flow was made in March 2012. So Google made a change, but left this PageRank flow in. That's pretty interesting.
Last, but not least, is Google's recent Hummingbird release. While most people associate this solely with improvements in processing natural language queries, this is only one part of it, and in fact Hummingbird is a complete rewrite of Google's search engine platform. According to Search Engine Land Founding Editor Danny Sullivan in this video (this is a hangout on air event I did together with him), part of Hummingbird was to allow Google to better process signals other than links, such as signals from social platforms.
This is quite interesting! While this new information makes it sound like Google is not using social signals yet, it makes it sound like it is definitely coming!.
How Might this Work?
Google will work hard to develop algorithms that extract clear signals of value from Google+. How might they do that? Let me illustrate with an example.
Let's consider three different people, but bear in mind that this example is pure speculation:
Person 1 is active on Google+ and they share lots of content, their own, and content shared by others. In addition, they always add thoughtful commentary in their shares and comment on a lot of other people's posts as well. The stuff they post gets lots of +1s, reshares, and comments, and their comments on other people's post often draw a reaction too. Many of the people they interact with frequently also get tons of interaction with their activity in Google+.
Person 2 is equally active on Google+ and they share lots of content, their own, and content shared by others. However, they don't often add much content and they don't get the same level of interaction from others. This interaction they get tends to be more perfunctory in nature.
Person 3 isn't on Google+. They are a total rock star in their space, and everybody knows it, but they have never used Google+.
Google can't afford to punish Person 3 in the search results. That would be bad for Google's primary product, you know, the one that they make all the money on? What they can do, though, is make comparative judgments between Person 1 and Person 2.
In fact, Google will look for ways to recognize the relative authority of Person 3 using signals outside of Google+ and reward them accordingly.
Of course, I don't know exactly how Google is looking at these types of signals, but they will try to find ways to extract value from them that increase the quality of their search results, and that demands a balanced approach to the data on their part, and an incredible amount of testing and verification.
We don't know if Google+ is currently impacting non-personalized results. We do know that they do let PageRank flow, and they have done that on purpose.
We know that the personalization impact is quite strong, and that Google+ posts themselves can rank in the SERPs. This is already a compelling reason to engage in Google+, especially if there is a real audience for you there.
We also know that Google gets the information from Google+ directly. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, there is no crawling involved in this process. Google+ also is continuing to grow, and it is strategic to Google's plans. With Hummingbird, it seems increasingly likely that Google+ will have some influence on non-personalized results. This is pretty exciting too!
Will it be a magic pill? The next big SEO trick? No. But, it can be a powerful component of your digital marketing strategy.