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Looking beyond the 10 blue links — what social integration means to search

4 min read

Social Media

In advance of the upcoming SES New York 2010 conference, I had the opportunity to throw some questions at Simon Heseltine, senior marketing manager at AOL, who will be speaking on the “Real Time SEO: No More Yesterday’s News” panel. A former colleague of mine, Heseltine is responsible for all SEO efforts across the AOL FanHouse (sports) and news properties.

How would you define social search? How does it differ from algorithmic search? What are the benefits of human qualities in search engine input?

The basic difference is that with social search you’re using humans and human behavior, through tagging, retweeting, voting, etc., to assist with the order of the search results. As for whether pure algorithmic search is better than socially adjusted search, look at what Google’s been doing for a while now: For a video to be ranked, they look at views, comments and rankings (among other factors). That is socially adjusted search. As social media becomes more intertwined with the regular search listings, there’s going to be more and more socially adjusted search.

Because friends and acquaintances have a natural bias to each other’s content, what analytics signals will search engines use to prevent “friendly voting” in social search?

This is something that social-voting sites have been having to deal with for several years now — trying to figure out how to stop people gaming their systems. They’re using triggers such as referrals (if 200 thumbs-ups came as a result of a click from the, then there’s probably an attempt to game the system), geographic location (200 out of 220 clicks from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, most likely indicates some form of collusion), and voting patterns (if there’s login information, which there most likely has to be for voting purposes, then patterns can be easily identified to see if a voting block consistently tries to modify the search results to its own ends).

What has happened over the last six months that changes the search equation? What should businesses be doing to keep pace?

The one thing about search that’s constant is change. In December, you started to see real-time news streams and Twitter streams for breaking-news stories showing up in the search results. In my opinion, they can be a bit distracting, but if they’re improving click-through rates, they’re going to stay, and if they’re not, the search engine will move them out for the next big idea to be trialed. Businesses need to keep their ears to the ground to find out what’s happening and how they can take advantage of those changes before their competition does.

The amount of syndication and republication of content to different platforms makes tracking unique views of that content difficult. How do you foresee separating out marketers who are pushing the same content to different audiences on a blog, Facebook, Twitter and other sites so that their friend isn’t overwhelmed with duplicate content?

The search engines themselves do a fairly decent job of handling duplicate content in their results, although there’s still a long way to go. When you’re looking at the same content across different platforms, the idea isn’t to post the exact same content here, there and everywhere, it’s to post it in one central location and use those other platforms to funnel people into that location in whatever way makes sense for the audience on that platform. Once you’ve done that, then you can engage the users on that central location or when they return to their platform(s) of choice.

If you were establishing a social-search dashboard today for a CEO who is focused on the big picture but wants to stay on top of short-run profit, what metrics would you already be tracking for that CEO?

I’d be looking at engagement, or more specifically, mentions, discussions, retweets, and referrals. The number of followers that you have on a specific site isn’t a key metric if all they’ve done is agree to be your fan, then never returned. A Twitter account with 500 engaged followers is so much better than one with 10,000 followers and no engagement.

Where is search going, in your opinion? Given these developments, is search becoming more important to businesses?

I had the pleasure of moderating the “Future of Search” panel at SES Chicago, and what I got from that panel is that there’s a lot of opportunity in mobile, especially with all of the functionality that’s available in today’s smart phones (I just upgraded to a Droid last week, and I’m quite frankly amazed at what can now be done, and the possibilities). I think there’s also going to be a lot more integration of social factors within search, so if your business isn’t looking beyond the “10 blue links,” you should, because your customers are.