Social Search, SEO and the Psychology of the Web

This post is the third in a series reporting the key learnings from my recent #NoSearch project, where I went two months without using an internet search engine.

Search engines have great power over how we perceive the world. Friends, contacts, me, you – we generally use Google or Bing or Yahoo! as one of our first ports of call when we need to know something. And as a result of this, the way we think as human beings is evolving, facilitated by search. A psychologist from Columbia University in New York recently carried out a study which found that, due to the availability of information on the web, we tend to easily forget things that we know we can find again. We’re rewiring our brains to remember where we can retrieve information online, rather than remembering the information itself.

It sounds a little far-fetched, right? But as my two months without search engines progressed, I realised that I was adapting to life without Google pretty easily. I found myself asking fewer questions of my networks as time went on and my recall of information and facts improved. And that’s in just a few weeks.

Psychologists believe that the internet has become part of our ‘transactive memory’, information that we don’t recall but know where to retrieve if we need it. Think about URLs for example. One of the biggest challenges I faced at the start of the project was finding websites without typing their name into Google. Could I remember specific URLs? Could I heck! Google’s auto-suggest feature makes remembering website addresses completely unnecessary. URLs are like phone numbers – they’re all plugged into a piece of tech that means we don’t need to remember then anymore. And that itself has huge implications for SEO and digital marketers.

When it comes to SEO, times they are a-changin’. As I said in my last post, social media is taking some of the shine off SEO strategy, and when you throw social search into the mix, the SEO industry is going to have to evolve very fast. I read just last week that around 20% of search results are now social media-driven and/or contain social signals. The fact is that standard search results can be gamed by artificially generating and optimising backlinks, keyword stuffing and the like. But if Google can add a social layer to its results then it’s taking search to a whole new level, and one that’s far more difficult to game. Enter Google+…

Launched smack bang in the middle of the #NoSearch project, Google+ is as much about social search as it is about owning the cloud, and far more important than beating Facebook or Twitter. As Sean McGinnis said in a recent post: “When we use Google+, we are creating data, all of which is within the Google network. It is critical that Google get social right…because social is where the data action is. It’s where we freely give up information about ourselves; where we create the connection nodes that Google can learn from and serve up a better search experience.”

This is spot on. Suddenly the +1 button and displaying social profiles from your friends and contacts with Google accounts on search results make sense. In the near future, Googling won’t return robot-generate results. It’ll return robot-generated results filtered through your own social network. So if you’re interested in SEO, you’d better start sussing out the synergy between search and social and working out how online behaviour is changing, as search is about to get a whole load more personal.

Part four of this series will compare and contrast the responsiveness of the top social networks as information sources.

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