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Stephen Logan

Will Social and Quality Signals Nullify Traditional Ranking Factors?

31st Jan 2012 SEO 3 minutes to read

Google PlusA good word to add to the title probably would have been ‘eventually’, as we’re not exactly at a stage where links can be consigned to history. However, it surely won’t be all that long until other, more human factors become equally important when it comes to securing optimal visibility online.

Google+ Search is just the latest in a long line of socially-driven, personalised search updates. Quality indicators have been used for years, but the influx of social signals and human testers has slowly diluted the impact of traditionally held SEO factors.

The progression has been gradual, but has been punctuated by significant events. Whether it’s the layout of search results pages or ranking factors, there has been an inexorable push towards instant results from the most relevant, quality sources.

Google Updates

A couple of years ago we got in a flap over Google Caffeine and the introduction of page load time as a ranking factor. Then they decided to explode local results, giving prominence to Places profiles. Next up was instant search, which took us to places nobody really wanted to go. Next up was Panda, which gobbled up and spat out shoddy content, devaluing millions of sites overnight. Even Schema and other universal tags for content have signalled a move towards standardisation of coding practices and clear quality indicators, in one sense or another.

Now of course it’s all about Search, Plus Your World.

Admittedly, this is something of an oversimplified timeline and you could easily go back much further to find the first murmurings of quality indicators. But it shows that we shouldn’t really be surprised by Search+, or indeed the continued downgrading of organic results.

Google and Bing both introduced Twitter feeds to their results back in 2009, and since then, the world and search technology has come a long way. Google+ is probably the most significant change in recent times, encouraging users to share even more data with the search engine and providing further context for their SERPs. It would be foolish of them not to use this information to improve the quality of results and even more foolish of us to believe that they won’t.

Human Testers Determining Rankings

So what value can Google really give to (easily gamed) links, compared with more substantive quality ratings such as shares and human testers? In recent months, the latter of these have come under increased scrutiny. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago Matt McGee at Search Engine Land published a fascinating interview with one of over 4,500 human testers working at Lionbridge. This exposed what it was that they were looking for and the kind of quality checks that they undertake.

Essentially, we found out that sites were being checked for their relevance to keyword phrases as well as other quality factors that robots can’t detect – design, spammy features and relevance of content. Again, nobody should be entirely shocked by this revelation. In fact it is comforting to know that this kind of work is going on behind the scenes, weeding out low-quality sites that don’t deserve a top 10 ranking.

But herein lies the problem for SEOs. What value can you get from links and on-page optimisation if your site could be booted off the front page as a result of a manual review or sinks far beneath the fold due to social results? The optimisation techniques that we have all come to know and use will only be effective if a site is up to standard. If a tester views it as “off-topic” or nobody ever feels compelled to share your content, suddenly your hard work could be undone.

Emphasis Fully on Quality

SEO is not dead and neither is link building, so let’s sweep that under the carpet straight away; but much of the fallacious and archaic reasoning of site owners, assuming that they can spam their way to untold riches for years to come, should be. In the short-term, this is still likely to work – to an extent; however, as Google continues to purge its results and update search pages, this is likely to change.

Search engines exist to provide the most accurate results for any query (albeit in order to make more money). I think it would be fair to say that they’re still not quite fulfilling this promise; however, they do appear to be getting closer. The progress made in recent years has been monumental, with ranking factors changing and SERPs being rendered almost unrecognisable, but that won’t change any time soon.

Quality is the order of the day, as is creating shareable content. If you’re not able to deliver either, even SEO may soon not be able to save you.

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