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August 16, 2007

The Impact of Social Media on Search Rankings

Over the past few years, the Internet has increasingly become a participatory social network where user-generated content is just as important as traditional advertising messages. This means your articles, blog posts, videos, podcasts, and other comments on the Web are now critical sources of information about your company, your products and services. This phenomenon has given consumers a voice and weakened the power formerly held by advertising media. Social media, therefore, becomes increasingly important to a Web site’s success and its visibility in search engines.

Not long ago, search engine optimization focused on fine-tuning your on- and off-page Web site elements in order to achieve better rankings in the search engines. While on-page elements remain the fundamental building blocks of your SEO campaign, it is no longer the entirety of the puzzle. With the rise of social media, it is more important than ever to create and optimize many different types of content in order to dominate the SERPs. The increase in user-generated content, and implementation of Google search personalization and universal search, has helped bring this about.

Search Personalization

In personalized search, individual user search results are reordered based on their previous search behavior and other indicators. Pages can move up or down based on the influence of a user’s Google home page content, bookmarks, search history, Web history, etc. While Google is the only search engine currently adjusting rankings using personalization factors, Yahoo and Ask have variations on this theme with MyWeb and MyStuff.

Google’s reasons for initiating search personalization are that it delivers more relevant results and can reduce spam. Others have challenged this rationale, stating that user interests are not static and can vary by season, mood or other factors. It’s also difficult to know user intent based on click behavior, as sometimes when people click on a link they’ll immediately realize this wasn’t what they wanted and click off. Queries can also be hit and miss, landing users on non-relevant sites which would then be used in creating non-relevant future results for that user.

Because of personalized search, optimization techniques will change, requiring more intense multivariate analyses in the competitor landscape since the leading competitors will vary as the SERPs vary. This will affect analyses of competitor on-page and off-page factors, especially keyword analysis. However, all the basic optimization tactics remain important. Content, in particular, must do a better job of telling search engines what the page is about, and this will result in better rankings for those able to do so.

Universal Search

With the advent of universal search by Google and others, search marketers and site owners will soon find it necessary to optimize their Web sites for a broad range of content types. This means creating content in every media and vertical niche applicable to your brand. Compelling, useful and widely propagated content will create more search visibility and Web site success.

Fresh content will bring repeat visitors and increase the odds that other users and Web site owners will want to share your content with their visitors, creating more backlinks. For most brands, the benefit of encouraging social networking activities is increased search visibility.

Search engine optimization techniques vary depending on the type of content being optimized. We’ve written before about optimizing content for Google image search, video search, news, maps and blog search. Two other areas you can optimize content for are podcasts and your Google Base data feeds.

Optimizing Podcasts

To create a podcast, you must record an audio file to be uploaded to the Web. Once uploaded, users will be able to download this rich media file and listen to it via an iPod or some other media player.

Up until recently, multimedia search engines relied on metadata to determine relevancy of rich media files. However, this was insufficient for finding relevant podcasts because the average podcast is 15 to 20 minutes long and has only 25 to 30 words describing it.

Currently, speech recognition technology is used to determine the relevancy of audio files. Speech recognition and extracting podcast content is essential for indexing content and making it findable by users. One way to do this is to play audio snippets to determine the relevancy of the terms within a podcast.

When optimizing your podcast ensure your content is easily found by promoting only one feed. Optimize the audio file, and then optimize a landing page for each episode in addition to your category page. Make your subscription information visible on landing pages. Create valid feeds and validate them with a feed validator tool such as or the W3C Feed Validator.

Your podcast should have a unique, keyword-rich Title tag explaining the subject matter. The landing page should contain a link back to your Web site. The publication date is important. This tag specifies the last time the feed was updated. Include image tags if applicable.

Since iTunes does not redistribute, we recommend building a separate feed for iTunes. You can promote with three separate feeds, a media feed, a 2.0 feed and an iTunes feed. Include a transcript or a summary of the podcast on the landing page, depending on the podcast length. If it is brief, only a summary reviewing the main points is necessary.

Optimizing Google Base Data Feeds

Google Base is a database where you can upload all kinds of online and offline content for sale. Your items will include labels and attributes to help describe the content you are uploading, making it searchable for users. Attributes are the words that describe the characteristics of your items. You can enter multiple values separated by commas for any given attribute. Labels are keywords that can be used to classify or describe your item, such as products, services, and even a house for sale.

The items you submit to Google Base will go in the Base directory, and some items, depending on relevance, might also go into the Google SERPs, Froogle or Google Maps. So the quality of your data is important if you want it to be found far and wide.

Use Google Base custom attributes to optimize your feeds. Google Base allows you to specify your own custom attributes, which means you can include additional information about your items. Unlimited custom attributes can be included in your tab-delimited bulk upload file. Detailed descriptions can make your items more relevant, getting them into the Google index and other vertical databases, providing more opportunity for them to be found.

Since many of those uploading their data feeds to Google Base don’t know about the custom attributes feature, you would gain a significant advantage because your feeds will be more successful than those of your competitors.

Another way to gain competitive advantage is to completely automate your Google Base data feeds. By automating your feeds, you ensure that the information uploaded to Google Base is up-to-date and accurate.

Automate your Google Base data feed by connecting it directly with your database with a process that pulls the most recent data once a day, submitting a new bulk upload to Google Base on a regular basis. Outsourcing this task takes about one day’s time for setup, and then it becomes automated. One resource for such e-marketing services is Hudson’s Horizons.

Though the fundamentals remain the same, search engine optimization is an ever evolving industry, adapting as the search landscape continues to change. It is now important to create and optimize many different types of content to dominate the SERPs. Optimizing your podcasts and Google Base data feeds will go a long way toward expanding search visibility.
Author:  Susan Esparza is the Senior Editor at Bruce Clay. She joined Bruce Clay in November 2004 and has written extensively for clients and internal publications. She also knows where the knives and forks go in a buffet line. The latter makes her invaluable to the Bruce Clay organization.