Is Social Media Ruining Search Results?

One of my colleagues, David Naylor, stated earlier this year that one of the greatest skills that a search engine optimization (SEO) professional possesses is the ability to analyze search engine results pages (SERPs). I agree with him. Monitoring and analyzing SERPs is no easy task. Search engines test elements on results pages all of the time in an attempt to improve the searcher experience.

Sometimes, a SERP addition is successful and becomes a permanent feature. Sometimes, the addition is a dud, and in the blink of an eye, the feature disappears before it gets too much publicity. And sometimes, the new addition just needs a little tweaking before it becomes a permanent fixture in SERPs.

I have watched social media creep into search results pages over the years. And I did select the word “creep” for a reason. In reality, social media existed long before Twitter and Facebook came into existence and became popular. People wrote articles/posts, and responses to articles, long before blogs came into existence. Yet links to articles and their responses, product reviews, and the like have appeared in search results for many, many years. We just didn’t use the label “social media” at the time.

Personally, I preferred using SERPs before other forms of social media became the rage. I think the commercial web search engines are giving social media items far more attention and validation than they deserve.

Blogs, forums, and tweets… a conversation

I understand the allure of real-time search. In one word? Recency. Search engine representatives assume that web searchers always want the latest and greatest information.

For example, an online shopper does not want to click on a link in a SERP to a merchant site, only to discover that the product is out of stock, especially during the holiday season. In an emergency situation, such as a natural disaster, searchers want to know where to go and what to do. News always has a recency element. In addition, response to newsworthy items can be important to users, especially if there is a difference of opinion. These conversations and debates can be a great source of information before consensus is reached.

My question is: do these conversations truly deserve prominence on the front page of search results? Which is more important: the conclusion/consensus or the content that leads to the conclusion/consensus? Or are they both important?

Before answering these questions, consider your objectivity. If your site is benefitting from these real-time, online conversations, then maybe your answer is yes. “Social media rocks because my site makes thousands of dollars from it,” is one point of view. If you are the victim of an unfair or inaccurate statement, then maybe you have a different perspective. There are equally as many people and/or sites that have been hurt by social media antics, many quite unfairly.

For example, let’s use the SEO industry. Every year or so, our esteemed Editor-In-Chief Danny Sullivan ends up defending the SEO industry due to widespread ignorance and prejudice. See Dear Fox News: SEO Is Not Search Engine Scamming (2009), Why the SEO Folks Were Mad at You (2007), Yes Virginia, SEO Is Rocket Science (2006), Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense of SEO (2005). Search engine optimization, as a profession, has been around for a very long time. There is plenty of great content available on the web that explains our industry, even the different tactics used to obtain qualified search engine traffic. Yet we must suffer through this sort of ignorance year after year. Does this ignorance deserve top search engine visibility just because it is recent?

People treat top Google (and other search engines) results as the “best” results, which is unfortunate. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen calls this search behavior Google gullibility. Are real-time results the best results? Or are most of these conversations just fluff?

User-generated content… really?

User-generated content is another item that has been in existence long before the keyword phrase “user-generated content” became popular.

What many people might not realize is that some companies and SEO firms pay people to write user reviews—whether the reviewers actually purchased a product/service or not. You can actually use Google and find people who are willing to write fake reviews or blog posts for payment. People pay reviewers to write bad reviews about their competitors… and they will purchase their competitors products just so they can write the bad reviews. It is not necessary to purchase a product or service to write a blog post. I see it happen all the time.

And if the review is genuine? Well, people who have a negative experience with a website tend to tell more people about that negative experience than people who had a great experience. The end result? Some really great products, services, and content get unfairly evaluated. It happens more frequently than any of us care to admit.

I honestly believe that the commercial web search engines are giving social media items far more attention and validation than they deserve. I can remember when I really admired our industry. Instead of a marketing department telling us what we want and how we should get it, web searchers turned it around. With the search engines, we are able to tell marketing departments what content we want to see on a website, not the other way around. If I want to watch a video, then I will type in the word “video” as a keyword. Don’t shove a video in my search space when I do not want to see one.

How about you, Search Engine Land readers. What do you think about search engine results pages including social media content? Are they getting better… or worse?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search & Usability | Social Media Marketing


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • samk

    I could not agree more that search engines are definitely not considering the quality and are just more worried about getting ahead in the game. Additionally, I think this is just a meme buzz that will fade out when people will start ignoring the tweets in the SERPs. As Rand Fiskin from SeoMoz pointed out that adding tweets to rank #1 in Google for any keyword is like going back in time when anyone with a meta and title could win the search game. I will not bother to look at the tweets on search results if it provides me zero value…heck it even completely blows away the relevance concern that search engine penalizes all of us for. R.I.P search user experience at least for now.

  • Joseph Fiore

    Some excellent points Shari and a topic that of great interest for me.

    There is no question that real-time search is going to democratize this process even more, but even then, it will still be an uphill battle for new entrants trying to establish their online presence. I’ve seen firsthand instances where people or companies were called out in an obscure corner of the social Web, and because these companies had only a few pages of search results, those discussions appeared in the top 3 results within a matter of a single day.

    But a lot of our frustration with what constitutes an unblemished record on our Google resume has much more to do with our infatuation with cracking the top 10. I’m sure enough research exists out there already to prove my next point, but on average, whether its a newcomer or savvy researcher, most folks won’t go past 3-5 pages of results anyway. You’ll find the Wiki’s, the links to corporate bios, product information in the top 100, but it just won’t be able to compete with word-of-mouth behaviour, especially when it’s spreading like wildfire.

    My question is whether our criticism of search lacking balance (and the top-heavy influence of social media in the top 10) is more a learned condition or expectation with search results that really matter (organic vs. sponsored or advertorial)? More to the point, how has our unrelenting infatuation with more rapid forms of communication and 140 character micro-blogging re-tuned our attention spans to the point where we really can’t be bothered with weeding through 20 pages of search results, much less a padded white paper or report published by brand/company XYZ when “therealdeal’s” (a moniker chose by a reviewer on a forum or consumer site) short description appearing in 5th position in Google, Yahoo or Bing results explains it in an easier, better and no-nonsense manner?


  • jessie

    Great article, Shari. The first-gen purist in me echoes your concern. Kudos :-)

    Alchemist Media, Inc.

  • Stupidscript

    While I, too, miss the good ol’ days when everything was more simple, and I am not a big fan of the pretzels we now need to tie ourselves into to get consistently great SERPs, I can understand that Google et al. are trying to speak to the individual … and not to the website owner.

    The use of social media streams and search behavior tracking seems to be providing a more personalized search experience, perhaps “better” for the searcher, although I would argue that it has yet to be proven, and it is making things a lot more messy for us professionals as a result.

    So while it is natural for us to comment and even complain about the use of new types of content within the search results, it simply presents more challenges for us to overcome. After all, I have yet to have a conversation with someone who is not in the business that even mentions SERPs … all they talk about is that one result they found that did the job for them, and that’s what Google et al. are working hard to provide: The “right” link for the individual.

    (Hi, Jessie!)

    James Butler

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi guys-

    Thanks for the comments. Nice to hear from you, Jessie.

    With all due respect, James, I respectfully disagree with your perspective. I do not (and have never) looked at search results purely from the perspective of a web designer/developer. I look at it from a user perspective. And, to be perfectly honest, I am rather tired of SEO professionals telling me the “user perspective” when not a single one of them who spouts their opinions has even performed a usability test to the level that a usability professional, or an information architect, would.

    I usability test all of the time. I have done so for years. And I have listened and observed, year after year, how much users dislike Google’s search results. And it’s the group that you think would LIKE the results who are the ones who dislike Google SERPs most, and this group finds desired content via other means.

    My recent tests show such an extreme dislike and displeasure (and ultimately, differing finding behavior) for tweets in search results. My favorite comment so far? “Who gives a [EXPLETIVE] about this [EXPLETIVING] tweet?”

    Product reviews are another thing that many online shoppers are dissatisfied with seeing, along with affiliate sites. And it changed their querying behavior.

    Don’t give me this “personalized” argument, everyone. Personalization is not about giving a satisfying user experience. It’s about getting private information — information that is none of Google’s or anyone’s business. Personally, I think Bing and Google are making search results so annoying that the only way users can minimize the annoyances is to give away private searching information.

    I think Google and Bing are going down a wrong path, and selling out, by over-emphasizing social media. My firm’s user tests are confirming it. Which leaves lots of room for a new search engine. So if you have a new web search engine out there? I think a lot of people are ready.

    Interestingly enough, I still won’t spam the search engines because it goes against my personal and professional ethics.

  • danielleg

    Well put Shari – “Who gives a [EXPLETIVE] about this [EXPLETIVING] tweet?” My friends and family, knowing what I do, have been complaining to me more and more often about what the results they are getting in Google. This invariably results in a funny situation where they ask me to change it and I explain I don’t have that much control over what appears in Google. There are far more people not using social media than there are who do – usability of search engines must be considered not just from the perspective of tech-savvy fans who adopt every web trend that appears.

    One good example of this is my daughter – she once was able to use Google to search for homework help and resources. Increasingly, I have to help her find what she is looking for. The options do make it easier, but at 12 she has become aware of the loss of integrity in the results. My opinion has always been that search engines should order themselves according to the needs of people like her. I would go so far as to say this should be a test for every search engine – can a kid use it to do their homework? If no, fail and go back to the drawing board.

  • parneetgosal

    I have to agree with James – clearly Bing and Google are including social search because of widespread demand. Social being what it is, I’m sure there are many people against seeing a Twitter feed in search…but there are likely many more who want it or at worst are indifferent to it. Also, lets not forget that social search includes conversations beyond Twitter – for example I’d like to see SEs get better at curating UGC to surface the most relevant and authoritative comments on blogs and communities.

    Shari, thanks for a most thought-provoking post!

    - Parneet ->

  • henweb

    As somebody who works in both Search and Social Media, I’m torn on the presence of Social results in the SERPs. Whilst I think they’re great for *some* searches, a lot of the time they add very little to the conversation, so I think Google (and the others) are going to have to do some refinement with the way these display, and WHEN they display.

    Either way though, at the very least it might make some brands realise that people are having conversations about them that previously they might have been averting their eyes / ears to…

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Parneet-

    I love a good debate. :-)

    I read your article. And do I disagree about most of your points. So here goes:

    > clearly Bing and Google are including social search because of widespread demand.

    Okay…what are the results of your usability tests? Did Google and Bing ever come out and say that people want real-time in their search results? Where are the results of their usability tests? Or do search engines put things in search results, and then use log-file analysis to prove that people want it — a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than an objective measurement of users’ motivations?

    I think you are stating your personal opinion rather than relying on objective usability testing, which reveals the ‘hows’ as well as the ‘whys.’ Log file analysis doesn’t reveal the ‘whys’.

    >People are inquisitive and like to know what others around them are saying.

    And what does this have to with completing tasks? “People are inquisitive…?” Come on! Quit making a blanket assumption about web searchers and show me some scientific perspective.

    Web searchers have tasks. How does social media help people complete their desired tasks? Increase memorability and learnability?

    What i hear is your personal opinion. This article took me years to write because I saw social media “creep” into search results years and years ago. And believe me, there are users who fit personas and profiles (for usability testing) who absolutely hate those listings, and it has modified their querying behaviors and web search engine usage.

    Granted, I’ve seen some users like social media listing for some very specific query types, but overall? I see many users distracted from completing their search tasks. So efficiency of task completion, decreased significantly.

    > Search engines will get better at relevance.

    Really? Do you know how easy it is to game Twitter? Have you ever done a blog search at Google? I discover a lot of search engine spam and plagiarism there.

    I don’t think you really read the article, Parneet. People lie. People game social media sites all of the time. I don’t think you understand that. Maybe you have never encountered it…I do not know. I do not wish to debate any person who refuses to consider both sides of a situation.

    > Opting in/out

    No user should have to log in to have a satisfying web search experience.

    Funny thing is…I like the web search engines. I’m probably the biggest white hat on the planet. But I do not support this path the engines are going down. Any Tom, Dick, and Harry can tweet. That doesn’t mean users have any interest in their opinion.

    BTW, Tom and Dick are social media optimizers at a search engine firm who never used or purchased the product and/or service. And Harry? He just doesn’t like you. How objective are those tweets? Really?

    But it’s just marketing….

    My 2 cents. :-)


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