James Royal-Lawson


Google Social search: followers and follows

This week Google rolled out a new feature to it’s SERPs and snippets when logged in. If you have a Google Profile and Google has indexed who you are connected to, there’s a chance that you will see a small profile picture along with a name and the text “shared this on <someplace>”.

a search result showing that a friend had share this page on Twitter

This is Google taking another step forward in integrating information it gathers about your social graph into it’s search results. This, of course, has a number of implications. You can read a bit more about the feature and what Google themselves have said about it in this Tech Crunch article.

Your connections

What isn’t apparent at first is who, exactly, are your friends. My initial presumption was that it was just the people I followed (on Twitter), but after a few searches it became apparent that it was both the people I follow and the people who follow me.

two snippets one showing sharing information from a follower on Twitter, the other sharing information from someone I follow

As you can see from the example above, the 4th and 5th placed search results are both indicated as being shared by people I’m connected to. I follow Alan Colville (Klout of 44), but Steve Cook (Klout of 23) follows me (I have Steve on a list, but I don’t directly follow him)..

Impact on SERPs

How much, if any, have those two tweets impacted upon the order of the results? Well, by logging out and doing a clean search for the same phrase the same two results are now 4th (still) and 9th. The second result has now dropped 4 places.

the two snippets from the previous example are 4 places further apart when not logged in

Ok, a number of additional factors could also be playing a role in moving that 9th placed result up to 5th – and as I didn’t do this test with the same Google account before this feature was launched I can’t say for sure how much of this movement is down to the shared link data. But I suspect it’s playing some part in it.

Importance of Twitter

What this does mean though, is that suddenly, following people on (public) social networks (in particular twitter) could lift the ranking of pages you’ve shared in those people’s search results. From an SEO perspective, the number of people you follow (and who follow you) became something to consider.

Shared links and little profile pictures makes Google’s use of this data really very obvious – but that’s limited to people logged into Google. What we can’t see as easily is how much Google is using this data in it’s regular organic search results, but we have seen from other case studies that it seems to already be a factor.

Eye tracking Google Instant

This week I did held a number of presentations and demonstrations of eye tracking user testing as part of Per Axbom’s course at Jönköping University. One of the tasks we tested was intended to show how people search using Google with Google Instant enabled.

We tested 6 people, all but one of them were students in their early 20s. The test environment wasn’t exactly how I’d normally set up eye tracking tests (being in a lecture room with 20-30 people watching on a projector screen while you try to solve the task will of course have an impact on the results!).

It’s always fascinating to watch people search – which is why I wanted to show the students a test involving a search engine and information foraging. This though was the first time I’d done any testing with Google Instant enabled.

No-one looked at the ads

Here are some quick findings.

  • No-one paid any attention to any adverts. Not once. Not a single fixation on an advert during about 7 minutes worth of Googling by 6 people. What does that mean for paid search?
  • When someone did stop typing for a moment to look at the Google Instant SERPs, they looked at the first result.
  • Those that looked at the keyboard whilst typing didn’t see the Google Instant results at all.
  • Results in positions 1-4 were, by and large, the only ones that received any attention.

It would be nice to do some more digging into the data and pull out a few more findings for you, but time is limited and I want to make sure this post makes the light of day this week rather than next year!

Google Instant Heat map showing concentration of fixations around the search box, suggestions, and first snippet

Pulling out heap maps and the like from an Eye tracking test of Google Instant is awkward as the positions of each item in the SERPs varies depending on how many suggestions appear directly below the search box. Sometimes position 1 is where position 2 would be on a normal Google search without Instant enabled.

First result wins

You can see from the heat map above that there is a concentration of fixations around the search box, the instant suggestions, and then the first result. The first result can at times be an advert – but during this test no advert appeared in that position. Note the lack of fixations in the right hand column. Adverts regularly appeared there throughout the tests.

It’s worth noting that Google chose not to do any eye tracking testing of Google Instant before launch, claiming that they didn’t have time. Others have since found the time and published their findings.

The SERPs are more and more complicated

This was by no means a controlled test, and the sample size was just 6 people – but all 6 searched in a way that was clearly their normal and ‘natural’ way of searching. All of them had to solve the same task, and the task had a specific answer that they were unlikely to know before searching. Most of them hadn’t used Google Instant before, so perhaps their behaviour will change as they adjust their search techniques over time.

Nevertheless, Google Instant creates a whole load of issues, and has a varying impact on behaviour. Google search results were already complicated, but the addition of new features such as Instant and Preview during 2010 have pushed this complexity up to a whole new level.

Google’s broken date recognition

I don’t exactly know when it happened (probably an effect of the “May update” Michael Grey spotted the date problem during April), but Google has clearly got some problems with how they are currently deciding when a page was published.

Trick Google

Simon Sundén pointed out two weeks ago in this article on his Swedish blog that it was easy to trick google into showing any date you wanted in search result pages. Simon suggested that Google was giving extra weight to dates in titles and main headings. But Google’s problems appear to be even more wide-spread.

Google’s algorithm is currently making some really poor guesses as to the published dates of certain articles. Hans Kullin has today spotted that Google is changing correct dates in their search results for old articles from Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet to incorrect dates based on the date they happen to re-index the page.

Aftonbladet example

Let’s take this Aftonbladet article from March 2008 – Bojkotta inte Kina-OS!.

Screenshot of Aftonbladet

You can see from the date in the above picture that Aftonbladet are clearly saying that the article was published on the 20th March 2008.

Screenshot of Google SERP

When we search for that article, Google is telling us that it was published on the 27th of May 2010 (yesterday at the time of writing this).

Screenshot of source code

Why though? Well, the first date that Google reaches when indexing the html of that article is indeed the 27th of May (as you can see in the above image). The date the article was published comes later on further down in the code. In addition, today’s date is repeated a second time in the code towards the bottom of the page.

The most reliable date?

Screenshot of the trigger date in the Aftonbladet menu

Aftonbladet are showing today’s date at the very top of their left hand navigation. (and by the side of their search box in the page-footer) Google’s current broken way of establishing the date that an article was published is seeing this date and deciding that it is the most reliable date on the page.

Exploiting the problem

Hopefully Google will fix this. Given the importance and weight of recently published content, we’re going to see a lot of people exploiting this problem with Google’s date calculation algorithm in order to push their old content back up the search result pages.

Twitter chat: is this social media or black-hat SEO?


JesperAstrom: @beantin – yes. 🙂 please write your perspective in a blog post and perhaps we could reach a conclusion?


beantin: @JesperAstrom yep, so we get back to a white-hat, black-hat SEO discussion rather than one about social media


JesperAstrom: @beantin – yes. But how does it effect the serps?


beantin: @JesperAstrom Not 100% sure either. Heart (and head?) says interesting content travels naturally within social media world.


JesperAstrom: @beantin – I c your point. And I am unsure. It is border-line. I know. But is it unethical you think? I weigh relvance vs. technical imp.


beantin: @JesperAstrom Don’t get me wrong Jesper, it’s a great technical post! I enjoyed it. It was the ethical side that made me uneasy.


JesperAstrom: @beantin – It says – releasing news THROUGH social media. It is – as I say in the post – NOT social medias best usage 🙂


beantin: Reading: “Releasing News through Social Media” by @JesperAstrom Gut reaction: is this social media or black-hat SEO?

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