Get to know Google Plus

Experts believe Google is likely to incorporate signals from Google Plus in its search ranking algorithms. Retailers can prepare by building a presence on the social network.

Amy Dusto

Engine and power equipment manufacturer Briggs & Stratton Corp. doesn't consider Google Plus part of its social media marketing strategy. Rather, Dave Cluka, the B2B retailer's digital marketing director, says the social network that Google Inc. debuted in 2011 is a part of its approach to search marketing.

Briggs & Stratton uses Google Plus as an avenue for distributing "how-to" content that it posts on its e-commerce site. For any consumer following the brand on Google Plus and logged into her Google account, then, the brand's content appears high in her Google search results when she asks questions related to its products, such as "how to change the air filter on my lawn mower."

Cluka isn't convinced of the overall value of Google Plus yet, but says the content distribution strategy seems to be helping the business' nearly 1,000 followers on the social network find its web pages more easily. "We know their [search] queries and that they primarily use our site for support," he says. That's why Briggs & Stratton builds content to address their questions before publishing it on its site and Google Plus.

"The power of Google behind it means you pay attention," Cluka says of the social network. "That is a big reason why we got behind it."

At best, Google Plus will one day take off, Cluka says, and at worst, Briggs & Stratton isn't risking much if it doesn't. He says the business devotes about an hour a week to the platform, far less than it spends building content and interacting with consumers on Facebook or Twitter. It's also free to set up a Google Plus brand page and distribute content through it, so the potential upside outweighs the effort. "We hope that in the future, if it becomes a [Google search] ranking signal we'll be ahead of the game—our competitors aren't doing this."

Experts agree Google is likely to make that change, perhaps in as soon as 18 to 24 months. Retailers shouldn't panic about it, or spend too much effort on the social network relative to their other social or search marketing efforts, they say. But to be in prime position for the day when Google decides to use it as a factor in its search rankings—likely as a way to help validate the web pages' authenticity—retailers should create a profile and build an audience on the social network.

"At any minute, Google Plus could become an important ranking factor—and I suspect it will be as soon as Google figures out how to keep spam out," says Tim Kilroy, CEO of search marketing technology provider AdChemix. By spam, he refers to artificial inflations of "+1s" (the Google Plus equivalent to a Facebook Like) on web content, for instance, from a retailer paying anonymous sources to +1 all its content. If Google decides to use +1s as a factor in its search ranking algorithms, such activities would allow businesses to game the system, Kilroy explains.

"It's clear that Google Plus is becoming more important," he says. For one thing, Google recently updated the settings on its video-hosting site YouTube so that consumers can leave comments only when logged into their Google Plus accounts, he says. "Google is making it very hard to avoid Google Plus," he says. "You have to think an active Google Plus page at some point is going to start sending signals of quality [to the search engine]."

On Google Plus, retailers and consumers can set up profile pages with information about themselves and their preferences. Members can add friends and brands and organize them into "circles," which are groupings like "family members," "college friends" or "professional contacts." As on Facebook, Google Plus users may post and share content, including images, links and videos. Publishers, including brands and retailers, may also add +1 buttons to their own sites—for instance, placing it on a product page or blog post—if they have a Google Plus profile.

Google's search results display content with +1s or that a Google Plus user has written. For instance, a post that has 500 +1s will show "+500" beneath its link in search results. And, if a Google Plus user identifies herself as the article's creator, her headshot and the number of circles others users have placed her in—a measure of her followers on the social network—may appear beside the article link if the search engine determines she is "highly credible."

Google has said, and outside experts have verified, that +1s and other social signals do not influence how highly a link appears in Google search results. However, that changes if a Google Plus user is logged into her Google account while browsing. In that case, if her search returns any results that someone in her circles has favored with a +1, those results appear higher on the page, just for her. She will also see one or more names of people she has connected with on the social network beside links if they have marked them with a +1. For instance, if her friend Peter Parker likes Spider-Man, beneath the superhero's logo the phrase "Peter Parker has +1ed this" might appear.

Google doesn't reveal how it alters search rankings for logged-in users, but Seth Dotterer, vice president of marketing for search technology vendor Conductor Inc. says it is not a » » big effect. For instance, the web searcher's location carries more weight when she searches for "pizza" than the pizza shop 100 miles away that her college friend on Google Plus happened to +1, he says.

A retailer's main objective for Google Plus shouldn't be to target consumers' search results, Dotterer says, because that would be nearly impossible and far too time-consuming to scale into any broad search strategy. Rather, e-retailers should be trying to ensure they are reaching larger target audiences with their Google Plus content.

Briggs & Stratton, for instance, this year plans to start educating consumers via Facebook and Twitter on the advantages they will gain—being able to find the retailer's how-to information quickly and easily—by joining Google Plus and adding the retailer to their circles, Cluka says. So far without that effort, about 800 consumers have added the retailer to their circles in the past year.

"Just spend a little time on it," Dotterer says. "Start to put [Google Plus] into your publish-and-promote strategy." Retailers shouldn't prioritize Google Plus over other social networks, he says, but they should dedicate around 5% of their social media efforts to it.

Additionally, whether a consumer is logged into a Google account or not, the presence of +1 information generally leads to higher click-through rates. Stephan Spencer, author of The Art of SEO, says any extra visual cues, including +1s, author headshots, thumbnail images from an article or video and retailers' star ratings, that appear with links or ads in search results can increase organic search results or ads' click-through rates up to 30%.

Gretchen Howard, director of global social solutions at Google, declines to comment on how such cues influence click-through rates for unpaid search results, but says that paid ads with +1s have a 5% to 10% higher click-through rate than ads that do not. "It's pretty basic psychology—if people you know, or lots of people, have +1ed a brand," you're more likely to find a link credible and click it, she says.

Google Plus has 300 million monthly active users, defined as users with profiles who have logged into the network at least once in the last 30 days, Howard says.

In 2012, 265 retailers in the Internet Retailer 2013 Top 500 Guide and 166 in the 2013 Second 500 Guide included +1 buttons on web pages. And some, like online shoe retailer Heels.com, include the number of Google Plus users who've clicked +1 to signal that they like the brand in its Google paid search ads along with its average star rating from consumer reviews, says marketing director Austin Caldwell. "These two signals add credibility to our brand for first-time buyers," he says, adding that ads with these two cues also garner "significant gains" in click-through rates versus ads without them.

Auto accessories retailer RealTruck.com hasn't directly measured returns from Google Plus activity, though it has added +1s to its paid search ads and tested using Google Plus authors to create content that displays their headshots and number of followers in links, says president Jeff Vanlaningham. "Obviously, we hope it helps and it's logical that it would," he says, noting that it can't control how Google shows RealTruck's Google Plus activity in organic search results like it can with paid ads. Like many retailers, RealTruck.com is still figuring out the best Google Plus strategy to influence search results. So far, its efforts have helped it attract more than 1,600 followers on the social network.

That's a good first step, says Spencer. The brands that ultimately will benefit most in search based on their Google Plus strategies are the ones working to build large, engaged Google Plus followings. That way, when Google decides the time has come to factor Google Plus into its results, "the SEO benefits will flow."




+1, AdChemix, Austin Caldwell, Briggs & Stratton Corp., Conductor, Dave Cluka, Google Plus, Heels.com, Jeff Vanlaningham, March 2014 magazine, RealTruck.com, SEO, Seth Dotterer, social media, Stephan Spencer, Tim Kilroy