Social Media is quickly becoming a major factor in search engine ranking, or will be in the near term.
Google announced in late 2011 that they would be implementing two major changes to their business model and to the functionality of their search engine. First, they are consolidating user information and activity across multiple applications, including YouTube, GMail, Google Search, and Google+. Second, they are going to use this consolidated information to tailor search results in their pervasive search engine to individual users. This means that a searchers' connections and preferences in YouTube or Google+ can impact whether or not a site is returned in a search result and where it gets returned. It means that not all users will see the same search results, but that those results will be determined in part by their social engagements in these other platforms.
Prior to Google's launch in the late 90's, search engines determined rankings based on the number of times keywords appeared in the content of a page. This model yielded extremely poor results for users because it was easy for unscrupulous site owners to manipulate their own content in unfair ways to increase page ranking and gain unfair advantage over competing sites. The quality of content on pages suffered as website owners crammed keywords — relevant or not — onto their pages, and engaged in other so-called “black-hat” practices.
Google introduced a search and ranking methodology that attempted to remedy this problem. The new algorithm based ranking not on the simple presence of keywords on a page, but on the credibility and reliability of site, which was determined in part by what other sites linked to it. This took site ranking out of the direct control of website owners by limiting their ability to manipulate the results by keyword cramming in their content. As a result, Search Engine Optimization became primarily a task of creating credibility by building link popularity — increasing the number of inbound links from sites that are themselves highly ranked. And the emphasis of SEO campaigns became the creation and syndication of content. This is the current primary method for determining search engine rankings. Until this year.
Google's recent determination to consolidate user information across all of its application platforms implies that a major change is in the works. This impression is bolstered by their launch of a social media platform in 2011 that competes directly with Facebook: Google +. The new search algorithm "Search Plus Your World" (aka "Search+") relies on data collected from logged in Google+ users, and a large part of the returned results display personal and business Google+ pages. This implies that search results will be deeply personalized based on user engagement in Google+ -- how users comment, share, and like (what Google calls +1) internet content.
While it is too early to develop an SEO strategy that shifts all attention from link building and toward social media sharing, the implications of this new Google model are clear: a business's Google+ practices (or lack thereof) could significantly impact search results both inside and outside the Google+ environment.
Although, as with traditional link building, creating relevant and useful content is still critical, what becomes of that content (how it is syndicated) is shifting. The central effort may shift away from getting people to link to content and toward getting people to share it or engage it in other ways. Some baseline recommendations include: