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Google Search Gets More Personal

Published on January 13, 2012
Tags: SEO

In recent days, Google has come under increasing pressure from Twitter and others who accuse the corporation of prioritising its own search results over others. The accusation from Twitter is that Google is boosting the search rankings of its own Google+ site over other social networking sites.

This essentially means that when people are logged in to Google and do a search, they will typically see results from the Google+ networking site appearing near the top of the page. This is significant because of the high click-through rate associated with the first page of search rankings – only a tiny proportion of web users ever go onto the second page of search results, which is why web designers and SEO experts spend so much effort trying to get onto that coveted first page.

The accusation that is levelled at Google largely came about because of a new feature that they are currently rolling out: ‘Search, plus Your World’. The idea behind this is about helping people find the best results for their search term. Google makes the point that sometimes these results come from the ‘public’ domain – that is, other websites offering information or services. However, sometimes these results are more personal, and so the new feature also incorporates personal content into search results, such as content that an individual has previously shared with their friends and family.

One concern that has been raised relates to privacy and the perception that personal results now appear as though they are also public. In fact, this is not true, but it does mean that friends and family who previously weren’t included in ‘sharing’ posts might now be able to access information from people they are connected with.

The upshot of Search plus Your World is that social search, personal search and personalised search – all of which typically make up search results – have been combined. You should know when you are seeing personal search results because as well as the usual ‘X results found’ notification, you’ll also see an ‘X personal results’ found notification at the top of the results screen.

The criticism from Twitter, mentioned above, is that these personal results heavily favour Google+, and in fact Twitter, Facebook and other social networks aren’t currently covered by Search plus Your World. One of the reasons Twitter isn’t happy about this is because of the trend for news to break first on Twitter – and they’re worried that breaking information will be harder for people to find if Google+ is prioritised in the search results.

Google argues that Facebook, Twitter and others don’t allow the search bots to crawl their sites particularly deeply (largely because of privacy reasons, but a fair reading would also argue it’s possible they’re not too keen on the idea of sharing their information with a dominant, powerful rival) and that Google+ is the only one they have decent access to – hence the prioritisation in the social and personal search results. It essentially allows Google to integrate more of its services so that they can all be searched from the one, central, google.com (or .co.uk) location, rather than separately having to carry out searches in Google+, News and Images, for example.

However, this isn’t an entirely new argument: it has been reported before that when people carry out Google searches for their own names (we’ve all done it at one time or another), their Google+ profiles appear higher in the search results than their Facebook and Twitter pages. This led to similar prioritisation accusations being made on the grounds that while people had spent years working on their Facebook or Twitter accounts, Google+ has only been going for a few months and so it’s odd that it would be appearing higher in the results.

Arguably, though, this can be explained away by the same reasons. Google has better access to and more information from Google+. Plus, personal Facebook profiles aren’t included in site crawls and when you consider that Twitter posts are limited to only 140 characters, there is often very limited information available from other sites for the search bots to pick up on.

Also, it’s possible to argue that Google is simply better at SEO than Facebook and Twitter. For example, Google+ encourages authors to put links back to their Plus profile on their own websites – and any SEO expert will tell you that inbound links are very important. There’s also typically a huge amount of useful search content on Plus profiles, often because they simply include more information than other networking sites. Google+ also allows more descriptive title tags.

Overall, it seems as though on this occasion, even though there are some privacy concerns and legitimate worries about Google’s increasing prevalence, Search plus Your World is a clever update from Google. One thing to keep an eye on, though, is the growing pressure for an antitrust investigation as a result of Google’s dominance.



By Chelsey Evans

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Google Downgrades Chrome in Search Results

Published on January 6, 2012
Tags: SEO

We have written before about the impact that Google updates are able to have on many websites, with Panda/Farmer being a notable example of this, as well as about the growth of the Google Chrome browser. You may also remember that, last year, we mused about what might happen if everyone decided to conduct a little experiment and block Google from Chrome’s own Personal Block List.

Now, with a certain irony (or just bad luck on Google’s part), we now have a chance to see what happens when one of Google’s own services is downgraded in its search rankings. In this case, we are talking about the Chrome browser, which has been at the centre of a dispute over the past week or so as a result of a promotions campaign.

The story behind this is that Google hired a company to promote its increasingly popular Chrome browser. As a result, promotional videos were produced and placed on a range of blogs. This is all fine, but the problems arose when at least one of the bloggers failed to include the ‘nofollow’ text that is required by Google when placing paid links – Google has a rule that states paid promo material should not be used to move links up in its search index, so bloggers including links to Chrome downloads broke the guidelines.

It seems as though this rule breach was completely unintended: Google had contracted the work out to a third party, specifying what they wanted, but ended up getting something different to what they asked for. For a few days, it was unclear exactly what would happen to Chrome as a result of the rule-breaking; the mistake may have been innocent but there have been reports of other sites being downgraded previously for similar errors.

In the end, Google decided to temporarily downgrade the Chrome browser in its search index, stating that even though the issues with the blogs and promo videos have been rectified, the company holds itself to a higher standard and so action has been taken as a result. The web address www.google.com/chrome has been demoted for at least 60 days and the PageRank of that page has also been lowered. Google has reported that after the 60 days are up, the process will continue as it would with any other company: Chrome will need to submit a request for the case to be reconsidered and document the action they have taken to clean up the issue.

You can currently see evidence of this action yourself: if you go to Google and type in ‘browser’ and then scroll down the page, you shouldn’t see any evidence of Chrome in the results. In fact, at the time of writing, we had to go to the top of page 2 of the search results to see a paid ad for Chrome, and we were on page 7 before we found the first organic Chrome result.

This downgrade has to be something of a blow for Google, especially as Chrome is becoming more and more popular – and the promo campaign means that people are more likely to be searching for it.

Other browser news

It might only be the start of 2012 but it has been something of a busy week for browser news – this time, it is news that web designers and developers have been waiting for: IE6 seems to be finally on its way out.

Microsoft announced this week that Internet Explorer 6, the browser it has been actively trying to get rid of for quite some time, is now used by less than 1% of the US online population. To celebrate, they had a cake baked. As a result of the significant decline of IE6, Microsoft has said that web developers can now treat the browser as a low priority, freeing up designers and others to focus on more up to date technology.

This is good news for Microsoft, which has been battling with IE6 for years, but even though many countries have now moved on to later technology, IE6 is still popular in other places – a notable example is China, where around a quarter of web users are still on IE6. This suggests there is still some way to go before the death knell of IE6 can be sounded once and for all. We look forward to seeing the cake that gets made for that one.

By Chelsey Evans

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Google Zeitgeist 2011 – What’s on the List?

Published on December 23, 2011
Tags: SEO

If you are looking for a little bit of end-of-year entertainment search trends analysis, it is definitely worth paying a visit to Google Zeitgeist. This is Google’s website that lets you take a look at the fastest rising and fastest falling trends of 2011 (among other things).

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Zeitgeist, it is a tool that allows you to see the ‘top 10’ of a range of categories. You can choose to search on a global basis or according to a specific country, which gives an interesting insight into what has gripped our collective imaginations over the past 12 months. Google calculates the lists by examining billions of search queries, determining the most popular trends of the year and then ranking them according to how well they increased (or fell) in popularity in comparison to the previous year. So, who or what exactly have we been spending our time searching this year?

Interestingly (or worryingly, depending on your point of view), the fastest rising search term on a global basis was ‘Rebecca Black’. You may remember Ms Black as the US teenager who released a song called ‘Friday’, became a YouTube sensation and generally took a bit of stick in the media on the grounds that the song wasn’t the best composition ever created. In the UK, she entered the fastest rising search trends list at number 9. She was, however, number 3 on the fastest rising people list.

As you might expect, the Royal Wedding also played a major role in worldwide search trends over the course of this year. On a global basis, Pippa Middleton was number 3 on the fastest rising people list, while Kate Middleton was number 10. If we confine the search to the UK, Kate Middleton was number 8 on the list, while Pippa wasn’t on the fastest rising people list at all (Ryan Dunn was number 1; he was the star of Jackass who was killed in a car crash).

One of the most interesting global Google Zeitgeist lists is the fastest rising news search trends. Top of the list is Fukushima, which was the site of Japan’s nuclear disaster a few months ago. The iPhone 4s was the second fastest rising news item, which perhaps offers an intriguing view into the things that grab our attention and the things that don’t (the iPhone 5 was the 8th item on this list, ahead of Gaddafi at 9 and Libya at 10). At the time of writing, it wasn’t possible to view just the UK list for fastest rising news trends, so we can’t compare or analyse specific local events.

However, one UK list that does provide some interest is the ‘what is’ trend list. ‘What is AV’ came out on top of the list. It seems like a long time ago now, but you probably remember the AV referendum that took place at the start of May 2011, hence the otherwise slightly odd search question. Our favourite entry on this particular list has got to be the runner up. In at number 2 is that all important question ‘what is scampi’. 

But what is the point of all of this? Surely one of the main uses of Google Zeitgeist is to offer a retrospective view of what the year was all about. It feels as though 2011 has been fairly news-heavy, often with a lot of pretty hefty, sometimes quite bleak news stories. What Zeitgeist suggests is that, despite all that, we’re still very interested in the world of celebrities and gossip – but that search also has a serious, useful side, providing us with information on electoral systems and important news events that resonate around the world.

Of course, next year’s search trends are likely to be different to this year’s, and so from a web design point of view, they are useful from a review and interest point of view rather than a practical one. However, it’s always interesting to get an insight into how people use the web, whether that involves the demographics of people who go online or the type of things they search for on Google.

If you want to know more about Zeitgeist or to view the other lists that are available, you can do so here.

By Chelsey Evans

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Google Flow Visualisation – Achieving Your Online Goals

Published on December 9, 2011
Tags: SEO, Web Design London

Working out the return on your investment is one of the key jobs in an online marketing campaign; without understanding the impact of something, you won’t know what works and what doesn’t or, crucially, whether you should fund similar projects again or focus resources elsewhere instead. Since websites are usually central to these endeavours, a couple of key questions need to be asked to help answer.

Simply put, how do people end up on your website? And, once they’ve found their way there, what do they do?

Understanding issues such as this is behind the recent launch of Google’s Flow Visualisation. This is a new feature of Google Analytics and, as the name suggests, the aim of it is to visualise your visitor flow. Essentially, it maps out where they’re coming from (such as direct or Google.com) and what they’re looking at. It also measures your drop-off rate, so you can easily see when people click away from your site.

Google Flow

Google also describes Flow Visualisation as ‘interactive’. A key feature here is the ability to hover your mouse cursor over various listed pages to see more information on them, such as how many people visited a particular page and how they came to be there. There is also a feature known as ‘Goal Flow’, which allows the site owner to identify various goals (for instance, URLS) and then measure results in relation to particular highlighted goals. This also works retrospectively, which is an interesting development for Analytics.

Therefore, we can split the new Flow Visualisation into two separate developments:

  • Goal Flow, which measures conversion paths and drop-offs. Google are apparently looking at extending the capabilities of this, too.

  • Visitors Flow, which details where traffic comes from and where visitors go once they’re on your site. This feature also contains ‘nodes’, which group together likely pathways through the site and allow you to follow through on various site connections.

This all sounds very well, but does Google Flow Visualisation have any practical applications, or is it simply an alternative way of looking at data you’ve already got?

Retrospective Goal Flow

Probably one of the most interesting – and practical – developments of Flow Visualisation is the ability to look at retrospective, historical data through the Goal Flow feature. This means that if you set up a new goal, as well as being able to use it to analyse future data, you’ll also be able to take a look at past conversion rates for that particular goal.

This can help with issues such as comparisons and reporting. The retrospective component applies only to your current goal settings, so this is something to keep in mind but it’s still potentially a very useful and nifty tool. Also, it’s something that wasn’t available before so it’s definitely a welcome addition.

Measure Campaign Impact

As suggested above, measuring the impact of campaigns is hugely important. Interestingly, Flow Visualisation can help you measure the impact of Adwords campaigns. You do this by selecting ‘Campaign’ (rather than ‘Source’) as your flow report dimension. This then allows you to highlight a particular section of traffic and measure how well your campaign is performing.

Identify Useful Content

This is something that we’ve been able to do using Analytics for quite some time now, but Flow Visualisation arguably makes it easier to see where our most useful site content is placed. For instance, we can make use of the Goal Flow tool to see where most users head while on the site, which can be a useful indicator of where our most popular content is. This can then feed into future developments such as site content overhauls and new campaigns.

Ecommerce Benefits

Flow Visualisation also has some potential benefits for ecommerce websites in the form of a backwards traffic visualisation. This is a component of the Goal Flow and it allows you to see where your web traffic has ‘looped’. For example, it means you are able to see if someone has been on the checkout page of your site but then clicked back to have another look at the relevant product page.

This could be useful for ecommerce campaigns such as ads on the checkout page detailing other products that might be of interest to the customer, as it can allow you to see the effectiveness of these. It could also help you gain some insight into why some customers abandon their baskets before making a purchase.

Overall, Google Flow Visualisation is an interesting Analytics development. Some of the features are, in essence, new ways of looking at existing information, but the Goal Flow feature in particular has the potential to be very useful. We’re also interested to hear that Google Analytics has some more developments on the way, so we’ll be looking out for those to see how they add to the Analytics experience.

By Chelsey Evans

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Are the New Google Plus Business Pages Any Good?

Published on November 18, 2011
Tags: SEO

Google Plus, the social networking offering from Google, has been up and running for a few months now and recently, it has launched its own business pages. This is a concept that has already had some success on Facebook, with more than700,000 businesses said to have set up their own page with the networking giant. So, it makes sense that Google+ would launch its own version - but are Google’s business pages any good?

It’s still early days for these business pages – and for Google+ itself - but they do show some potential that companies are sure to want to make use of. For instance, the pages are due to be ranked in search results, which is sure to be appreciated by businesses looking to boost their Google rankings. Google has also developed a new feature, which is called Direct Connect.

The idea behind this is that it allows web users to connect directly to companies’ Google business pages through search. You do this through the Google site – type ‘+’ followed by the business name (such as +Google). This then takes you to the relevant Google+ page. This feature is still being rolled out and so it’s not yet entirely operational, but you can read more about it here.

All of this is very positive and it suggests that these new Google business pages have the potential to be very good, especially as Google+ continues to grow and more users start to adopt it. However, there has been some concern that they’re not quite up to standard yet.

In a way, this mirrors some concerns that were raised when the network itself first launched – it was thought by some that it wasn’t quite ready, and there was some controversy over issues such as whether it was okay to use internet pseudonyms rather than real names on the site, as well as the fact you need to sign up using a Gmail address (adding to our increasing number of email addresses).

One of the issues with the new Google+ business pages is that only one person can currently administer the page. This means that if you have two people in your company who typically manage social media, they’ll probably have to set up a specific company Google+ account and manage the business page through that, rather than doing it through their own accounts. Some companies may appreciate this approach, but when you consider that you are able to have multiple administrators on Facebook’s equivalent pages, it does suggest that not everyone will be entirely happy with this.

Also, one of the selling points of Facebook’s business pages is that they can be used to run competitions and promotions. This can be a good way of drawing more people to the page and encouraging interaction between brands and users. Currently, under Google+ policies, this isn’t possible on the Google business pages, which is likely to be seen as a negative point by many. Of course, this doesn’t stop the possibility of a policy change in the future (nor does it stop businesses linking to competitions elsewhere from their Google+ page), but for now it is something to consider.

Another – potentially more significant – issue faced by Google+ business pages (and the site as a whole) is that it simply doesn’t get as much traffic as other networking sites such as Facebook. For instance, Facebook reaches over 60% of US web users. By contrast, Google+ currently reaches less than 1%. It seems safe to say that Google+ will grow over time, but currently, for online marketers and website designers, if you are going to have a business page it seems as though Facebook or LinkedIn would be the safer bet. 

In all fairness to the Google Plus business pages, they are still new and so it stands to reason that functionality will be added over time and they’ll continue to grow in capability and capacity. The idea of Direct Connect is also an interesting one and raises more search opportunities for businesses – and including the pages in search results is a good move.

Therefore, we can probably put many of the current issues down to teething trouble and on-going development. However, until Google+ starts to become more popular and reaches more users (particularly active users who use the site every day as so many do with Facebook), it seems that no matter how good the business pages are, they’ll still struggle to make much of an impact. That isn’t to say companies shouldn’t bother with them – they have many good points and are more than likely to become more influential over time – but perhaps don’t abandon your other social media platforms just yet.

All that said, and whilst Google+ for Business is still a work in progress, it is still worthwhile getting your business in there early. As an early-adopter of Google+ for Business, you never know how Google might reward you in the natural search results later down the line – perhaps it will be similar to how they use your domain name registration date as a ranking signal. It could be that the longer your business is in Google+ for Business, the better the search placements you get.

By Chelsey Evans

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