If you work in search marketing, then chances are good that you’ve read the great journalistic effort from Danny Sullivan on Search Engine Land “Social Signals Google and Bing Really Count?” Since the story is now 13 days old in linear, real-time (translating to roughly 6 months old in Search Marketing time), you might be wondering why I’m choosing to talk about this now?
There’s been plenty of talk about the details of how Bing and Google credit profiles and what they key off of to assess that profile’s authority. But, what I haven’t heard from anyone, is the quintessential problem this reporting of this data brings with it: do you build a profile for quality or a profile for ranking purposes.
This post is solely going to focus on Twitter profiles. While Facebook does have relevance to the conversation, it’s not being used by more than one of the major search engines in full (via Search Engine Land’s Article) and even at that it appears Bing is back-referring to Twitter to surmise authority. Ultimately, this is going to more introspective about how I’ve used Twitter in last two years, than empirical facts.
It All Starts With Quality
We all start building our profiles with the aim of quality in mind, because, after all, our first profiles are usually personal. We follow influential people in our business spaces, friends, or people who provide amusing or great information. As your time in a given space grows, your own influence builds. Whether it takes months or years, every active profile arrives at this point where they must choose the direction of the profile.
Follower counts grow, following counts grow. The opportunities to spread your meme farther and farther is alluring. At some point you stop focusing on the quality of followers and focus on the number. Bigger is better. And Google and Bing seem to agree with that logic. What Danny was calling the SocialRank and as Bing articulated:
We look at how many people you follow, how many follow you, and this can add a little weight to a listing in regular search results
Nowhere in that statement does it mention quality. And, you might feel free to apply that to this statement, but I’d be careful about that. It seems to be focused on straight quantity. Followers to Following. The measurement, it would seem to Bing, is to see a well-defined gap between Followers and Following.
It Ends With Rank
I’ll be the first to admit, being on twitter for almost 2 years now, that I’m as interested in attaining rank, being as “influential” in the space as possible. At some point Twitter transformed itself for me into being a tool for getting messages out, highlighting great content, building relationships (i.e. Superstar mentality) and less about the quality of followers.
For the first year on Twitter, I didn’t care about counts in the least. I built a profile fashioned out the industry’s best, whether they followed back or not, because they brought great information and conversation to the table. I was of the mindset that I would rather have a succinct core of idea and information exchange, than be a Jim Morrison wanna-be. I subscribed, and still do subscribe, to Edward Lewis’ Twitter paradigm that you kill off spam profiles/accounts from followers. Because it was/is all about quality in your stream and getting the maximum from the space/tool. Then it happened:
At some point, I started caring about how my profile ranked and how much influence my profile carried. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but is was a progression over time. And, truthfully, it makes me a bit sad. I love the community of SEMs/SEOs/Marketers that I listen to and communicate with daily. I really do believe we are as tight-knit a community as there is on the web, but at some level we all see each other as a means to an end. Spreading the meme, good SERP position for queries where social has influence, and standing on one another’s shoulders to shout for authority/thought-leader status.
Just tonight I looked over my profile and found a huge surplus of spam hanging around. And, because I’m so careful to keep an acceptable Friend/Follower ratio, I explain it away. I prune obvious leaving the ones I know are spam but fake human well enough.
The Tools Reinforce This Behavior
Don’t get me wrong, I think Klout, Peer Index, and the like are innovative and genius. But they reinforce the mentality about Rank over Quality. And, yes, I use these tools to not only keep tabs on my own influence, but when I’m engineering a social attack strategy, these are first places I go to start organizing and architecting that attack.
These tools assess influence, reach, amplification. I don’t know the accounts personally, whether they’re small and have a solid following; I just know that I’m going to place Person X here and Person Z here because their influence and amplification dictate those terms. Because these are the right moments to set off the meme-explosions with the right profiles. It’s impersonal and cold-hearted.
Google and Bing Reinforced This Behavior
I’m not blaming the messenger for this. Danny did a bang-up job on that post. I’m blaming the engines for encouraging people to be more mindful of their counts than the quality of their profiles. It’s clear the engines think that these two ideas overlap, that one can’t be had without the other. In some respects, they’re right. Quality attracts quality. However, quality also attracts a boat-load of spam.
To be honest, one the hand I’m glad the engines finally admitted what most of have known for some time: influence, friend/follower ratios matter. On the other hand, it disturbs me that this information will only encourage more spam profiles to be created, and that people will not label as such because of the influence factor. I know that’s asserting a lot about the Twitter community in general, but I see this as an inevitable outcome. When ratios matter, when authoritative meme-spreading matters, spam gets a break because they lend itself to bolstering stats and occasionally helping a meme along.
What’s the Solution
I wish I had one. And, there are some of you out there saying, “And? No problem here. It is what it is.” I’d love to tell you that Tweeple will reverse course and solely focus on building quality, but I know that’s not realistic, or feasible. We’re marketers, it’s about leveraging advantages.
The solution is to let this take its course. That’s the best I’ve got folks. I think since there’s still some mystery around how engines are viewing what’s authoritative and influential and what’s not, there’s no reason to get jittery. Yet. But, if “links” have taught us anything, it’s only a matter of time before exploitation of the system becomes a premium. And it is my sincere hope that the engines have enough sense to adjust fire when it becomes saturated into their SERPs.
Overall, I’d like to see our community eliminate the spam profiles following them now. I know that you kill off one, three more takes its place, but if we remain steadfast on eliminating these profiles, eventually we’ll be left with quality. I can hope can’t I? (Starting with me)
I know that seems like a large leap of logic, but when it’s distilled and deconstructed down to the central idea, that is exactly what Google intends to do.
Here’s what Amit Singhal says about how they calculate your TweetRank (in a nutshell)
In the case of tweets, the key is to identify “reputed followers,” says Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow, who led development of real-time search. (Twitterers “follow” the comments of other Twitterers they’ve selected, and are themselves “followed.”)
“You earn reputation, and then you give reputation. If lots of people follow you, and then you follow someone–then even though this [new person] does not have lots of followers,” his tweet is deemed valuable because his followers are themselves followed widely, Singhal says. It is “definitely, definitely” more than a popularity contest…
In fact, that is exactly what it is. A popularity contest. Of course, we all had some inkling of that notion to begin with, but now it’s official. I do think they are trying to determine relevance and trustworthiness and integrating that into the TweetRank algorithm, but like meta-keywords in their heyday, it’s a lot easier to “filter out noise” by a simple follower count. It’s more than that, it is, to say the least, another Orwellian attempt by Google to “filter” information they deem “relevant and trustworthy”. Just look at the article’s example for “Obama” tweets.
Google is now Controlling the Conversation
Do not attempt to adjust the vertical or the horizontal. They have control. With the inception of TweetRank, and the newfound importance of RTS (real-time-search) and the RTR (real-time-results), if you want exposure you’ll have to play by their rules. What does that mean exactly?
Hello. I’m SPAM-BOT #6257. I’m now following you.
First: don’t manage who follows you or who you follow. As pointed out, high follower counts, like the PageRank algorithm theorized, is essentially a vote of confidence the user is worthwhile, trusted, and relevant. If follower count is the initial indicator of “trust”, then we’re about to see quality take a dive. Anyone who’s been using twitter, say for more than 2 months, knows spam is the prevalent thing in the tweet-tubes.
Second: put the brakes on your hash-tag use. I can see Google’s point on this, and there is no limit to hash-spam out there (i.e. #ThatsOldSkool). But, for much of the users on twitter, particularly the SEM crowd, it’s more artistic expression and blunt force. Personally, I use the hash-tag for sarcasm, blunt honesty, and to call out industries of importance to me. Hash-tags on Twitter are part of the socio-culture. It’s ingrained. To be so wholly injudicious and lump ALL hash-tags together is ridiculous.
Google: Can it Change the Culture of Twitter?
No one is really taking this seriously yet, so I don’t expect the change to happen overnight. However, as RTS and RTRs are pushed to the forefront of search, and Google makes good on the RTR algorithm, you’re going to see marketers drop hash-tags from their tweets. You’re going to see an over-abundance of spam infiltrating the ranks of everyone just to have massive follower counts.
It will only take 6 months of this algorithm being applied before Google goes back to the drawing board. Google picking on the easy marks to establish faux-quality guidelines: Followers and Hash-Tags. It won’t take long before QDF (query deserves freshness) queries and results are overrun with pure and utter garbage, under the current guidelines. These two major indices DO NOT indicate quality of tweet or Tweeple.
I think Google will fail in its quest to re-mold the conversation on Twitter. And, ultimately, Google is going to have to really put some complicated thought into how it serves RTRs. Perhaps an algorithm that matches the complexity of the is SERP algorithm. This is the easy way out, and it’s only going to lead to poor quality and bad results.
The Year Social Media Grew Up: 2009
Let’s start off with a confession: I’m an SEO and SEM’er (which might have been obvious from the name of the blog). Naturally, I tend to think my discipline of choice, SEO, is the most important of the disciplines. I work in the “nuts and bolts” of sites: from arduous keyword research selection and code tweaking to site architecture to content manipulation/augmentation to link building. A Jack-of-all-Trades you could say.
And, as an SEO, I need to be fluent in all things SEM. Need to know how they tick, are used, and how they can be leveraged at an organic level. Most would believe that SEOs are diametrically opposed to SMM (social media marketing), but this couldn’t be further from the truth (considering the most recent updates to Google SERPs with real-time, “fresh” results).
Social Media: Through Puberty
Social media, as we know it today, has been around for a few years now (Blogger/Facebook/Myspace/Digg/etc). But, it wasn’t until 2009 that social media grew up and became a force of its own.
I can trace back the “GROWTH SPURT” to exactly this date: April 17, 2009. Why this particular date? Oprah dedicated an entire show Twitter: what it is and how to use it. Apparently, she’s not too keen on the vehicle, with only 90 tweets. Coincidently, this is the exact same day Ashton Kutcher was on Larry King Live to talk about the race to 1 million followers with CNN. This is the day social media went from a potty-trained toddler to a college graduate with two kids and a mortgage.
When You Grow Up, You Get Exploited
When you grow up and reach that certain point in your life, everyone wants something from you. And, for the search marketing crowd, the adulthood of Social Media represented a new gold rush. For over a year, since early/mid 2008, businesses were hesitant to drop themselves into the social media pool.
Here are some fun facts about social media and network growth over the past year*:
- The fastest growing segment on Facebook are Gen-X’ers and Baby Boomers
- Time spent on social media and networking sites is the fourth most popular activity, ahead of checking personal email.
- Use of Twitter and other micro-blogging sites has TRIPLED since the summer of 2008
- Social networking and media sites account for nearly 10% of total time spent online.
In one day, with Oprah-fication as proof the medium had gone mainstream, every business and corporation wanted to get in on the action. Gobble up all those Gen-X’ers and Boomers as they started stumbling around the social minefield. An easy mark.
Enter: The Social Snake Oil Shakedown
Talk about low-hanging fruit: and out come the douchebags, the self-proclaimed experts and gurus, and those looking to capitalize on the corporate lambs and SMBs that want the latest and greatest. SEO went through the same growing pains, and to some extent, is still going through it.
2009 marked the entrance of SMM and SMO snake oil salespeople. They come in two varieties: Fast-talking folks who have a blog, a Facebook profile, and a Twitter profile. They probably worked in a low-level PR position and started a gig on the side. Or, traditional ad agencies with a newly developed “digital” arm, trying cash-in and be relevant in a web-dominated world w/ metrics.
No, a professional does not include someone who states the pure obvious about “how to really succeed in social media”. I’ll save you some time so you don’t have to read another carbon-copy article just worded differently.
Every Article You’ve Ever Read About Social Media Success Tips:
- Be genuine. Don’t fake your persona
- Engage the community on a regular basis
- Social Media/Networks are all about trust. Work to accrue that trust.
- Mix your personal and business lives on your social account (a.k.a. be genuine)
- Don’t be political, religious, or offensive in any way, shape, or form. (Unless, of course, that’s who you are. Then you should do it. But with caution)
- Know your segment and community. Provide information that will be useful to them, and, coincidently further your business endeavors.
- Don’t prostitute your own links all time. You’ll be seen as disingenuous, and, therefore, lose followers.
There. That should just about cover nearly every single post, article, piece I’ve seen on social media this year. But this is not to say that they aren’t real professionals out there who know exactly how to engineer and construct smart, linkable SMM campaigns. Do your homework, use trusted resources for recommendations, and slam the door on social media snake oil.
Predictions for SEO and Social Media for 2010:
Honestly, what would a review post be without a few predictions?
1) The clear, definite distinctions between search marketing disciplines will be gone
We’ve already started to see this. Algorithm updates, based on some cursory research and data I’ve seen for clients, are suggesting to me that PPC and SEO are intertwined. Taking that further, SEOs will have to get their heads around SMM/SMO and learn to apply it to their overall arsenal. The lines have already begun to blur; evolve or die.
2) Social Media and Networking will go through a Purge Phase
It’s not that the number of sites will shrink and fade out (though I can see that happening too: an inter-web social network pissing match), it’s those who self-proclaim guru status that will die out. I think this coming year you’re going to see more and more “certifications” floating around. And, a higher demand from SMBs and corporations that will demand some sort of certification before they hop into bed with you. Get one or get purged.
3) SEO will be Fine. Relax.
SEO isn’t going to die. Far from it. It’s going to be more valuable than ever this coming year. And, since we are the Jack-of-all-Trades (master of a few), we’re going to be needed on several fronts. Especially dealing with SMM backlink strategies and how to pull reliable metrics on those campaigns to measure effectiveness and ROI. Once again, evolve or die, people.
With that, everyone, I hope you all have a wonderful, pleasant, and successful 2010. Happy New Year!