Google, Google+ and search: Maybe it’s all an SEO play

Google+ The flap over Google’s playing up Google+ in its search results continues. Now Harvard professor and security expert Ben Edelman has weighed in on the debate. His argument: By embedding Google+ into search, Google is essentially prodding people to join its social network out of SEO fear.

Edelman has been noting Google’s potential favoring of results before. He argues that Google favors its own properties. That debate has gone off the charts on Techmeme.

He sets up his argument against Google’s tying of Google+ by comparing it to other services.

I’ve found more than a dozen Google services receiving favored placement in Google search results. Consider Google Blog Search, Google Book Search, Google Checkout, Google Health, Google Images, Google Maps, Google News, Google Realtime, Google Shopping, and Google Video. Some have developed into solid products with loyal users. Others are far weaker. But each enjoys a level of favored placement in Google search results that other services can only dream of.

Google uses premium placements and traffic guarantees to address the “chicken and egg” problem that undermines the launch of many online businesses. For example, many retailers might be pleased to be listed (and even be willing to pay to be listed) in a review site or product search site that has many readers. But finding those readers cost-effectively requires algorithmic search traffic, which a new site cannot guarantee–hindering the site’s efforts to attract advertisers. So too for books, local search, movies, travel, and myriad other sectors. Ordinary sites struggle to overcome these challenges–for example, buying expensive pay-per-click advertising to drive traffic to their sites, or beginning with a period in which they have undesirably few participants. In contrast, anyone assessing the prospects of a new Google service knows that Google can grant its services ample free traffic, on demand and substantially guaranteed. Thus, the success of a new Google service is much more predictable–reducing Google’s barriers to expansion into new sectors. Indeed, if partners recognize that Google can send such traffic whenever it chooses to do so, merchants are encouraged to join before Google turns on the spigot.

But then Edelman’s argument gets more nuanced. There’s also a bit of a confessional that is worth noting as you examine Google’s search power. Edelman said:

I joined Google Plus not because I wanted to participate, not to take a look around, but because I perceived that Google would grant my site preferred placement–more algorithmic traffic–if I linked my Google Plus account to my web site and online publications. It’s hard to figure out whether I was right. But SEO forums are full of users who had the same idea. So Google can force users to join Google Plus to avoid receiving, or expecting to receive, lower algorithmic search ranking. Certainly myriad sites added Google +1 buttons (giving Google both data and real estate) not because they genuinely wanted Google buttons on their sites, but because they feared others would overtake them in search results if they failed to employ Google’s newest service.

In other words, you join Google+ not because you want to, but you have to.

Whether this holds up in court would be an interesting experiment. The argument revolving around Google’s power deals with some gray areas.

This item first appeared on ZDNet’s Between the Lines blog under the headline “Harvard’s Edelman on Google+ and search: I joined Google+ for SEO.”

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