Weighing Up Google+ – What You (& Your Clients) Should Know

Weighing Up Google+ – What You (& Your Clients) Should Know

8th February 2012

Now that many of us in the search marketing space have come to terms with some of the dilemmas associated with Google Search Plus Your World (GSPYW), Google’s new privacy policy and the endless stream of figures coming out of Google celebrating the number of “users” of the Google+ platform it’s high time that brands and sites of all shapes and sizes start weighing up whether participating in Google+ is right for them (if they’ve not already done so).

I will make a few points up front that will hopefully help you decide whether or not Google+ is right for you and your site, but I will also raise some key concerns with indexation and potential manipulation of competitor search results that I have not seen widely covered thus far.

Is Google+ Right for My (Clients’) Site?

imagesource: reliablenetworks.co.uk

My personal feeling on the issue is that – irrespective of whether or not Google’s figures of 90 million can be presumed to be real people (as opposed to bots), there are plenty of influencers that have signed up for a Google+ account (whether they wanted it or not) and the results that these individuals see will undoubtedly be impacted by the content that people within their circles +1 or share on the Google+ platform.

At the end of the day, there is little to no excuse for websites to have at least Google +1 integration (i.e. the ability for users to easily +1 a page or article), the majority of sites would also benefit from registering or verifying a Google+ Business page, and some sites would genuinely benefit from having an active engagement (either now or in the future) on the Google+ platform itself. Although it goes against my own personal feelings to  wholeheartedly recommend a product that I believe is taking Google toward a product that I quite frankly don’t want in GSPYW (about which a great deal of concern has been raised), the current and potential future ranking impact and ability to generate traffic prevent me from being able to suggest anything other than the fact that all websites could benefit from some level of adoption of Google+ or +1 badges.

However, even with the most basic implementation of the above (a +1 badge/button on your site) there are some serious implementation concerns of which to be aware.

Why Is Google+ So Important?

As mentioned above, I think some level of Google+ integration would be a positive for every website I can think of – and here is a quick refresher on some of the “pros” of participation in Google+

1. Whether or not you make it easy for your users, people can +1 any of your content they like already – either directly in the search results (as illustrated below) or using Google’s official +1 Chrome Extension (more serious concerns on this product below). You may as well make it easier for the user to promote this content and get it in front of more users. Even the most difficult of CMS systems should allow for a certain level of +1 integration – even if only on the homepage.

2. With the right number of +1’s (and a business page) you can pretty much takeover page 1 results for your branded terms (as covered over on Search Engine Land). This is great for online reputation management (if you have some brand issues) and great for mobile search (as CTR is thought to be even more pronounced for the top 2 rankings). These listings are potentially massive, though can vary:

3. Increased CTR. Although CTR as a direct ranking factor may be somewhat disputed (personally I think the inclusion of CTR on Google Webmaster Tools is a strong case that it’s worth thinking about) there is no doubt that more clicks = more traffic. What’s also indisputable is that CTR is a factor in determining your quality score. As there have been a number of suggestions that anything that makes your listing stand out on a page (ratings, author photos, etc.) it stands to reason that +1 figures would have a similar impact. Thus the definite benefit of having the social reassurance of +1’s would be improved quality score where +1’s appear against your listing, and a probable benefit would be an improved ranking and improved CTR in organic listings as well.

4. The speculative (if not positively confirmed) assumption that Google have created this experience to attract data that others (Facebook) previously had and they (Google) did not, it also stands to reason that Google +1’s and shares will almost certainly become a key ranking factor – even if you do not believe they are already. Much like the sites that were naturally building links before they knew anything about SEO (think really old weather and forex sites using widget bait) that still rank for head terms, it makes sense to get out in front of this curve and start getting those +1’s – as Toyota clearly have from the below image. The worst case is that you get increased exposure to your loyal customers’ circle of friends, the best case is that you have a head start and a leg-up on the competition even in “non-personalised” results – should we ever see those again.

5. At the moment Google is giving away prime real estate – and this will not be the case for long. As we have all read and noticed, Google has been promoting the heck out of Google+ to an annoying degree. However, rather than treat this as a horrible thing, we may as well capitalise on the fact that Google is giving away prime real estate that stands out – for free… and this will not be the case for long. I would bet just about anything that Google will monetise this valuable space at the top of page one, either through the AdWords platform or a new platform directly tied in with promotion within the Google+ platform. These listings will not be free forever – and take a careful look at who is now sitting pretty for the generic search “cars” and how that correlates with the previous image.

Do I Need A Google+ Business Page?

We’ve already established that every site (that I can think of) would benefit from and should have a Google+ badge or button to make sharing a bit easier, but deciding whether to add a Google+ business page requires a bit more thought. As with any social media platform there are a number of consequences from signing up and it’s still to participate in social media without a strategy. So there are a couple of levels of effort and potential thoughts.

1. If you are a small business and don’t want to/have time to monitor and interact with a community there will be little benefit to you creating a page. By all means, there would be little harm in so doing but the question of resource and whether the time required to make it “worth while” justify the potential gain out of pushing yet another platform makes this a bit of a non-starter for me unless the small business has a strong social media presence.

2. If you are a big business with reputation issues, I would suggest that at an absolute minimum you should claim and verify your business page (how-to right here). This requires minimum effort and you can turn off comments and bury your head in the sand if that is your general business approach. You probably won’t get much out of the platform, but if this describes the sort of client/website you are working with there are probably more pressing issues for you to attend to. This is not to say that these businesses couldn’t benefit massively by getting involved in this or other online communities (where the majority of their customers/liabilities are active) but rather to say, at a minimum they should register a page.

3. If you are relatively ambitious, have free resource, want to interact – Google+ as a platform is actually really interesting and opens up some great avenues. You could easily create hangouts with thought leaders in your space, host live Q&A’s, and create some real noise (i.e. pick up a load of +1’s in the process). The only caveat to this is that, at present, I’m still fairly convinced that Joe Public isn’t going to be spending a lot of time on Google+ the same way they would on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. so you would need a pretty strong draw to get them out in the first place (unless your target audience is online marketers, early adopters, and technophiles).

That’s a massive oversimplification of the scenarios that exist out there but hopefully will provide a bit of guidance as to what level of investment makes sense for you or your client and at the end of the day just bear in mind what your goal in any of this activity is before launching a product, and if you are trying to build a community think about whether a nascent platform is the space in which to do it.

I definitely don’t think this will be another Google Buzz or any of the other failed projects because, frankly, Google have tied too much to the success of Google+ and will not let it fail – even if it means letting important people leave the company.

Major Concerns When Adding Google+ or +1

Although there are obviously a lot of positives (as mentioned above) for brands and websites adding badges and trying to add to their +1 count, there are a number of serious concerns as well – some of which I’ve not yet seen published.

1. There has been widespread publication of the fact that ultimately there is a potential for a Google+ brand page to outrank a brand’s website. This may be fine if you have an active community – but given the lack of accountability or tracking (see point two) – it’s not ideal to have traffic that might otherwise be purchasing getting distracted by Google+. There should always be a strategy behind where you drive your traffic (for what terms, and when) and focussing too much on building up your Google+ brand page may just see some of your more important properties suffer.

2. Tracking. At the moment there is not an easy way to track traffic to a Google+ page. Many would argue that this is similar to issues with Facebook and you could always try and find a clever way to tag up outbound links, look at referring sources, etc. This is fine, but it doesn’t help you have any clarity around what sort of traffic your Google+ page is receiving, from what sources, etc. It’s a problem that should be easy enough for Google to fix (it would seem obvious to allow brands to associate a GA tracking code with their page), but at present this is not an option.

As Google looks to more seamlessly move people around (track you) with their new controversial privacy policy, they should also be looking to at least share more data with their clients (i.e. advertisers and content producers) within their own Google products. This could give them an advantage on the transparency front over the likes of Facebook – but seems somewhat unlikely at present.

3. One discovery that I made the other day when reading through Google’s support on Google+ was the below, which left me quite taken aback.

“When you add the +1 button to a page, Google assumes that you want that page to be publicly available and visible in Google Search results. As a result, we may fetch and show that page even if it is disallowed in robots.txt.”

Given the number of retweets this discovery received I’m guessing there were a lot of people in the industry who were not previously aware of this fact. And a lot of people did not understand why I was so alarmed.

The potential issues and implications from this are numerous:

First of all, this has a massive implication on what testing can be done on any pages that feature a +1 on a development server. From the above wording it looks as though the presence of the button alone can trigger Google to fetch, display, and potentially index a page (even if it is disallowed in robots.txt).

  • This seems to imply that, worst case scenario, any page on your development server with a +1 button could be indexed and in turn you could be exposing your development server (not cool).
  • Or, in a best case scenario it means that this is only a risk if the button is in fact pushed on a page, which still means that you cannot properly test the functionality of this button without risking the exposure to the page

This is also an issue because many sites are built on templates and adding the button to a universal template would often be the easiest way to add the +1 button – however, if you have a number of pages on your site that would not like indexed (for whatever reason) this creates a great deal of manual work either installing the button, or removing it (hopefully before the page is indexed).

Additionally if the “best case” scenario above turns out to be the case, the Chrome Extension previously mentioned (and officially produced by Google) explicitly highlights the fact that “all the pages you visit will be sent to Google in order to retrieve +1 information.” This opens up a potential opportunity for massive manipulation of others’ sites and would allow me to hypothetically +1 a number of sensitive pages backed by Robots.txt (credit to Curtis Sinclair for helping me uncover this one).

I have yet to determine which of  the above is indeed the case (I am currently testing and will feed back), but either way there is significant cause for concern here as either of these outcomes and Google’s willingness to fetch and display this information in the search results (in spite of robots.txt) renders the robots.txt file as an accepted standard – wounded if not altogether superfluous.

The above concerns should be carefully considered when adding the +1 button to any page and it would be very useful to get clarification from Google as to whether it is the act of adding the button, or the fact that a page has been +1’d (or both) that would lead to the page being indexed.

Please do let me know your comments below, I’d love to hear what other people think and whether they feel Google+ and +1 is an opportunity, a concern, or both.


Written By
Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director at OMD UK. Sam focuses on increasing traffic and conversions for websites whilst always keeping his eye on a company’s bottom line.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.