Google has long told marketers that though buying AdWords won't help them in natural search results, creating great, well-linked content will.
But some marketers are preparing for another shift: Google's incorporation of social signals from Google+ in its rankings. Brands aren't waiting for the giant to make it official, which is a big reason they're investing in Google+ pages. Their worry is that early adopters will reap the search benefits, while others will be buried by those who have collected more +1s.
Google is already "experimenting" with making a click on +1 buttons one of the more than 200 signals informing its search algorithm, according to a company spokesperson. But it could go much further and factor in the number and size of a "circles" -- the pools of Google+ users following a brand -- as well as how widely its Google+ content is being shared. That could give brands an incentive to be active on the platform and get fans to engage with content there."Google's trump card in social is if they make Google+ an extremely strong signal in their ranking algorithm, and basically they can force every brand to push it because of the impact it would have on Google search results," said Group M Search CEO Chris Copeland.
Google+ brand pages were rolled out last month (http://adage.com/article/digital/google-open-business/230862/), but few organizations are committing major resources to them at this stage. Dell and Macy's are among the brands to have worked with Hangouts (http://adage.com/article/digital/brands-start-test -hangouts-google-pages/231053/), Google+'s group video chat feature, one of its main differentiators from Facebook and other social networks.The vast majority are still treating Google+ as an experiment, and Michael Scissons, president of Syncapse, a social-media management firm. Most are reproducing Facebook content on their Google+ pages and not worrying about making their content SEO-friendly -- even though it's a looming consideration.
"I would say everybody at this point is in trial and discovery mode around best practices, and I believe Google will start to give some degree of preference to Google+ pages over Facebook pages, because it's in their own best interest to do so," Mr. Scissons said.
Ford was among the marketers in Google+'s beta-testing group for brands. The automaker's head of social media, Scott Monty, said that though his team hasn't made a big content push yet, he expects more movement when brand pages' functionality is enhanced next year. Google+ hasn't affected Ford's search visibility to date, Mr. Money said, but he sees it coming.
In terms of opportunities for a marketer like Ford, Mr. Monty drew a potential scenario in which a YouTube video on Ford's channel could be shared on Google+. If it were shared widely and got many +1s, it could reach the top rungs of organic search results for "Ford" or "fuel economy," for example.
"The more deliberate we are with the content we create and share on Google+, the more those earned search results are going to come up," Mr. Monty said.
Chad Estes, Vitrue's VP-client partnerships, said some major brands working with his firm are carving out a Google+ presence defensively, as a hedge against changes to search."Chances are they don't want to wait until Google finally admits that it's happening to start creating content," Mr. Estes said.
Mr. Copeland of Group M Search envisions a near future where the best results for a brand are its own site and its Google+ page, followed by its Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter pages to round out the top five. But he thinks the bigger opportunity for early adopters nurturing communities on their Google+ page could be in generic search. A detergent maker's page, for instance, could surge in results for such keywords as "grass-stain removal" if engagement is high. In that case, he foresees late adopters having to compensate by spending more on paid search than they had intended.
"One or two brands [per category] will embrace this to a large degree, and everyone else will have to play catch-up," Mr. Copeland said.
Roger Barnette, IgnitionOne's president, expects Google to tread lightly in tweaking the algorithm to avoid disrupting the user experience. "You want to see how users are using [Google+] before letting it impact ranking," he said.
It's also possible that signals from Google+ won't directly alter search rankings but will instead be used as a results "validator," according to Kevin Lee, CEO of search-marketing firm Didit. For example, +1 clicks could be used to confirm that a recently launched news site merits a high search ranking if it has been linked to and written about extensively.
"They want it to continue to be the best user experience," said Mr. Lee. Making social signals a big factor in SEO would open the door to marketers' attempting to game the system and offer incentives to users to engage with their content in the Google ecosystem, he added.