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?

About The Author

Shari Thurow
Shari Thurow 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).