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The Social Pulse: The State of SEO

Search Engine Optimization, that once hip-buzzword, now almost seems like a relic from the Mad Men era of marketing. But for startups and established companies alike, SEO is the tried-and-true workhorse behind effective brand exposure. The secret to optimization—then and now—is understanding how search engines work and making effective use of that knowledge. Google’s market dominance over the past decade has made this process considerably easier, but the emergence of social search features will change SEO in significant ways.

In January, Google rolled out a social search feature called “Search, Plus Your World” that utilizes user information from Google+. The first problem? There aren’t that many users on Google+. The much-ballyhooed Facebook-killer isn’t a total flop, but it hasn’t attracted much attention since its own launch in June 2011. The second problem? The personal results are so unobtrusive they’re nearly invisible. A search for my alma mater produces 30 Google+ results, but I had to click on a tiny “personal results” link to see them.

While Bing is stuck in a perpetual second place behind Google in market share, its social search “sidebar” has been fairly wellreviewed—in large part because it allows users to sync with their Facebook accounts and search through Twitter and Quora. The “Friends Who Might Know” function provides a list of social media friends who may know more about a particular question or topic. The “Ask Friends” function allows you to query Facebook connections directly.

At present, these and other social sidebar features are only marginally useful. But there’s a lot of potential for friend-sourced hotel, dining and gadget recommendations, especially if Facebook-synced Yelp and Amazon reviews are highlighted

Google Minus?

Google+ is positioning itself for a war of attrition against Facebook, which has a massive user base but an increasingly poor reputation. The company recently announced that it will focus on integrating Google+ profiles into “business” operations, such as Google Docs. Google Hangout is already a popular feature, enabling free group video chat with people in your Google+ network. This is feature not currently supported by Facebook, and could be a big draw for teenagers—and a big challenge to Microsoft’s freshly-acquired Skype.

Still, while Facebook’s 950 million members might complain about the site’s increasing number of advertisements and diminishing privacy settings, but that doesn’t mean they’re going anywhere. In fact, CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently hinted that the company may soon get into the search engine business—using its massive audience as leverage for social searches.

If that weren’t enough, Google also has to worry about Apple is stealing its thunder. Apple’s voice-activated Siri, a feature that debuted with the iPhone 4S and is now available on the iPad, uses Google along with services like Wolfram Alpha and Yelp to field user inquiries. In August, Google admitted that Siri was on their mind, saying that, “to build the search of the future, we will have to solve difficult technology issues like speech recognition and natural language.”

There’s no denying that Apple and Google have become estranged in recent years as both companies continue to expand operations into each other’s turf—it’s been a long time since Steve Jobs invited Eric Schmidt to sit on Apple’s board. Apple has steadily begun dropping the company’s services from its products, and its newest iOS removes the formerly pre-installed Google Maps and YouTube apps. (Its replacement for the former, Maps, has not been well-reviewed.)

Worthy Adversaries?

While Google’s search engine market share is dominant, it’s also relatively static at around 66 percent. That leaves a large enough window to accommodate the Yahoos and Ask.coms of the web, as well as more specialized engines like Infomine and Data Ferrett. But big players like Microsoft aren’t satisfied with second—especially not when the Google brand is encroaching onto other platforms.

Microsoft launched its “Bing it On” challenge earlier this month, inviting users to compare Bing’s recalibrated search engine against Google’s in a blind comparison test. Microsoft claims that people prefer Bing results nearly two-to-one over Google. But for this author—and many other testers—Google consistently came out ahead in multiple matchups.

Bing may never match the effectiveness of Google’s algorithm, but it would quickly increase its market share if Apple ever dropped Google as the default search setting on its Safari iPhone browser. Likewise, further synergy between Microsoft and Facebook would only amplify Google’s comparative disadvantage at social search. Google remains an overwhelming favorite in this battle, but you can bet that SEO marketers will be watching the odds.

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