Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

Tag: google

Social Authority in Search Results and Lessons from the Past

I read a very interesting article on Mark Schaefer’s blog {Grow} today that discussed some relatively new topics in the search world: “social scoring” and “social authority.” He cited excerpts from interviews with Google and Bing that explain how both search firms are considering changes to their algorithms to account for the influence of content authors.

The concept of “social authority” is a sea change in how online content is indexed and discovered. With the rise of user-contributed content over the past few years, the fact that Google and Bing are giving more credence to this medium is, to me, a logical outcome. We’ve already borne witness to real-time search results appearing in our queries; calculating the weight of one’s social authority is merely the next step.

Reading through the comments, however, this trend doesn’t seem to sit well with folks.

Is social authority going to be gamed? Of course it will. One of the reasons the phrase “search engine optimization” still tastes funny in many mouths is due to “black hat SEO” that used sneaky and misleading techniques to propel biased or unrelated content to the top of search engine rankings. Google’s Page Rank, once considered a key metric in figuring out the overall importance and relevance of your online real estate, has pretty much fallen off the radar due to numerous attempts to exploit the algorithm.

Social authority doesn’t have to be scary. What needs to happen to prevent a dark future for this concept is twofold.

Google, Bing, and other search entities need to be relentlessly proactive in how they integrate social authority into their results. I expect results that incorporate author authority to improve steadily over time as the search firms gather more data on the authors, their influence (including how that influence is generated and calculated), and the nature of their publishing platforms (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.). Evolution of search algorithms needs to be intelligent enough and sophisticated enough that the relevant content “naturally” rises to the top.

Content authors need to come clean and stay that way. We all witnessed how black hat SEO came to ruin the party for those who genuinely and continuously thought about how to get the right content in front of the right viewers. We have to heed the lessons of the past and do things right this time around. Authors must be counseled on how to continue to create excellent content, in the proper medium, in the proper context. They must understand that silver bullets do not exist and that cutting corners will come back to bite them in the end.

Let’s fight hard to prevent “social authority” and “social scoring” from becoming the next four-letter words in the content world.

Key Elements for Measuring Your Social Media Campaigns

Now that social media channels like Twitter and Facebook have matured into solid communications platforms, many individuals, organizations, corporations, and agencies have taken to these channels to reach their audiences. What hasn’t quite solidified, however, is how these campaigns are tracked and measured. There’s still a decent amount of confusion and differing opinions of what you should measure and how.

In this post, I’ll share several factors, methods, and steps that I’ve learned this year about how you can effectively and realistically measure your social media campaigns. This isn’t intended to be a complete or exhaustive list of what you could use, but it’s my hope that each topic will assist you in your endeavors.

Define Your Goals and What Constitutes Success

Before you pursue any coordinated effort in your social media channels, think very carefully about your goals and what constitutes success for you. Remember, you cannot measure success (or anything at all, for that matter) if you don’t have defined goals up front or have an unclear vision of what defines a successful venture.

  • Expectations: Set the expectations of the campaign early and often. Make sure the goals and definitions of success can be precisely tracked, measured, and reported on. Build a communications strategy and make sure everyone who will be involved in the campaign has read and understood it completely. If you’re simply testing the waters of a specific social media channel or experimenting with a new approach, that’s perfectly fine, but make certain everyone understands that, especially those in charge.
  • Timeframe: Think about the timeframe of your efforts. What is the life expectancy of the campaign? Is it a short-term promotion, a webinar, conference, or event with specific dates, a brand awareness effort, or a marketing campaign to raise awareness of a cause or resource? Will you announce the effort ahead of time so users are prepared to take action, such as a “save the date” for events? How will you build interest and sustain momentum over the course of the campaign? What are your plans for retiring the campaign once it’s complete? Have you considered follow-up activities like a user satisfaction survey?
  • Transactions: Work out which transactions will define a successful campaign and stick with those decisions throughout the effort. How is the campaign intended to affect your transactions? Are you seeking to drive more traffic to a specific website, blog, or web-based application? Do you want a certain number of users to sign up for a promotion, event, or product trial? Do you want them to buy something? Think about “goal conversions”: the action(s) you want your users to make, and the end result(s) you want from them.
  • Return on Investment (ROI): ROI is a classic business metric, but it’s one that’s generated a lot of heated discussions when it relates to social media. Whenever you think of ROI, it should always boil down to money: hard dollars and cents (or euros, sterling, yen, etc.). Did your campaign generate enough revenue to justify its cost (marketing materials, agency fees, manufacturing costs, etc.)? Did you increase sales of a product or service? Did your transactions balance out the (estimated) hourly rate of the staff spent managing, tracking, and measuring the campaign? You don’t have to always sell something to determine ROI; in essence, you’re figuring out whether the campaign was worth the effort, but that worth has to be a financial measurement.

Look for Active Responses

Among the most valuable success metrics are direct responses from your audience. These can include mentions and direct messages on Twitter and wall posts and comments on Facebook. Be sure to check these regularly, especially if you intend to respond to comments or engage with your audience to keep up the momentum of your campaign.

If one of your transactions is new fans or followers, you may want to activate e-mail notifications to have “hard copies” of these actions. New follower notifications from Twitter, for example, not only show you basic information about the new follower, but also which platform or browser they used, the date and time of their activity, and the size of their audience.

Check How and How Often Users Are Sharing

To track how far your message has reached, look for evidence of sharing within your audience.

On Twitter, keep track of retweets, both the old- and new-style versions. “Old-style” retweets have the prefix “RT” before the original tweet along with the handle of the originating account. Users may choose to add their own comments in the retweet, and may edit or winnow down the original text to fit their comments. “New-style” retweets are simply a reposting of the original tweet in the user’s timeline; they can’t make any changes to the original text. Depending on which tool you’re using to measure retweets, you may need to look in different views. For example, Hootsuite will not show new-style retweets in a “Mentions” view; you need to track them in the “Your Tweets, Retweeted” view.

On Facebook, look for both “likes” and “shares”. Whenever a user likes a post, it increments a “thumbs up” value associated with the post; all fans of the page see this value. If the user chooses to share your post, the original post will appear in the user’s timeline. They can also choose to add a comment to prefix the shared post.

Likes and new-style retweets are what I consider “lazy successes”. It takes a user only one click to perform these actions, so it may not indicate that they read the complete post or whether that post was informative, helpful, or useful to them. Facebook comments and shares, along with old-style Twitter retweets with additional text, are more valuable for quantitative feedback.

Use Query Variables or URL Shorteners

Whether you’re sending out links in your tweets and Facebook posts, including website URLs in direct mailings, or displaying QR codes in your promotional materials, go the extra mile to insure that you can properly measure user activity.

Several URL shortening services, such as bit.ly or Hootsuite’s ow.ly, have back-end reporting tools you can use to track and analyze click-throughs. Hootsuite can also overlay tweet click-throughs with your Google Analytics reports to show possible relationships between your posts and website traffic.

Query variables, which are additional pieces of information you can include in a website URL, can provide you with richer metrics. Web analytics applications and services such as WebTrends, Google Analytics, and Radian6 can collect information from query variables whenever a user visits the URL. What’s nice about these variables is that you define them: add whatever information you’d like to collect, such as the campaign’s name, a specific marketing code, or which channel you’re sending the URL out to. You can then work within your chosen analytics platform to track, monitor, and report on the variables.

Never Rely on a Single Metric

When it comes time to gather, analyze, and report on the results of your campaign, never base your success or failure on a single metric, such as followers or fans. Always use multiple measurements and track trends in their activity over time. This allows you to form the complete picture of your campaign, and makes you better informed about what contributed to the results.

Crossing the Finish Line

Building realistic expectations, setting your timeframe, defining your transactions, and understanding how ROI will relate to your campaign will all help immensely when it comes time to measure your efforts. Be diligent in checking (and responding to) active responses from your audience and how they’re spreading the word about your campaign. Give your measurements a boost by considering URL shorteners and query variables to supply additional information about your users. And, finally, don’t hang the success (or failure) of your efforts on a single value or metric.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I don’t consider the thoughts I’ve gathered here as the “be-all-and-end-all” compendium of social media measurements. If there are specific methods or insights that have worked well for you, please feel free to share them in the comments.

I want to thank the good folks at Marketwire and the #smmeasure chats for helping to inspire this post. Their weekly social media measurement Twitter chats have been quite valuable in my own social media efforts, especially since metrics in this space are still not clearly defined or universal. The #smmeasure chats take place each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern Standard Time. Follow the @smmeasure Twitter account or the #smmeasure hashtag to participate.

Keeping Your Private Life Private: Social Networks Only Know What You Tell Them

Between Google Buzz and Facebook, discussions centered on privacy and the implications of using social networks having been hot topics so far this year. The issue certainly isn’t new, but it’s reaching critical mass now because of the players involved. With over 500 million unique users, Facebook is sitting on an exceedingly rich vein of personal information and usage data, and Google, of course, pretty much knows everything you’d ever need to learn. Both have advertisers chomping at the bit to know as much about you as possible to make that next sale. What’s their only barrier? Your privacy.

Right now, the primary difference between Facebook and Google is the basic structure of their networks. Google, for the most part, is an open network: various and sundry details about you and your browsing habits are collected and retained as you go about your business on the web, but these remain generally anonymous. Buzz started off on the wrong foot by trying to mix this anonymous, open data set with the more closed network of Gmail. Facebook, on the other hand, started off as a more closed network, where your information stayed relatively safe within the confines of your personal network. Their privacy settings, however, have evolved towards making much of your profile public by default, often with little fanfare or notice. The shifting walls of security in both Buzz and Facebook have given their users and privacy advocates plenty of heartburn. It’s good to see a constant hum of awareness about what is truly private and public, as a lot of folks don’t seem to be aware of what’s happening to their data, but there’s one key observation that I see missing from these discussions: social networks only know what you tell them. If you don’t want your personal details to be shared under any means or circumstances, then don’t share them in the first place. You’ll cease to be concerned about your privacy if you don’t sacrifice it. Facebook is not magical; it won’t tell CNN what shows you watch and suggest articles without your intervention.

Of course, I understand that one of the main points of social networks is the sharing of information. You obviously can’t and shouldn’t be fearful of sharing, but you can be aware of how much you do share. The very nature of these networks will make people who follow you seem eerily clairvoyant about your comings and goings, but if you keep your details to a relatively general and innocuous nature, there’s neither harm nor foul. To that end, I’ve collected a few thoughts I hope will get you thinking more about your social privacy.

Always assume you’re talking in a room where you can be overheard. Closed networks like Facebook can be penetrated by those willing to be patient and creative, so don’t share things that would make you embarrassed, get you kicked out of your preferred religious place of worship, fired, or cause you to be incarcerated if it were suddenly made public to everyone. Stick to the facts. Don’t overshare. Be very mindful about broadcasting your location on tools like Fourquare. Folks running on the right side of the law are not the only ones being creative with these networks.

Never settle for the default settings. If you’re just joining a social network, check your surroundings carefully before you reveal anything significant about yourself. Is the network open or closed by default? Is there an all-or-nothing set of options, or can you customize? A great quote I read on Twitter this week made the analogy that leaving your default settings unchanged was “like streaking in public”.

Stay informed about your network. If there’s an option to receive e-mails whenever the network makes a change, sign up for it. Follow resources like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Help Net Security to learn about changes in privacy policies or security incidents that you may need to worry about. It never hurts to review your account preferences on a regular basis to confirm that you’re sharing (or hiding) exactly what you want.

Avoid revealing “security questions”. Banking and financial websites like to ask you “security questions” they feel “only you can answer” should you forget your user name or password. They’re usually along the lines of “what was your first pet’s name?” or “what is your mother’s maiden name?”, and are intended to decrease the likelihood of someone getting access to your account. People tend to be nice and chatty on social networks, and it’s become much easier for scammers to learn more about you. Social engineers look at what you post, what you like, who you talk to and follow, and use these details to fill in the blanks. Avoid talking about the subjects of your security questions or pick ones that are more obscure. The same goes for passwords: find something memorable but ephemeral: What song has been in your head recently? Was state does last week’s Powerball winner live in? What’s your cat’s least favorite toy? You get the idea.

Keep an eye on your friends. In networks like Facebook, where you can be tagged to photos or videos taken of you, with or without your knowledge, it’s important to stay aware of what your friends and colleagues are doing with your data, and, to a larger extent, your reputation. Make sure your account notifications are set up so that you’re sent an e-mail or text whenever someone associates anything in their profile with you. Don’t be afraid to tell people you don’t want anything posted without your permission; it is you, after all. Also, don’t “friend” people who you think will be less than trustworthy with your personal information. Check to see how much they make public, and then imagine how much of your profile would end up there if they start tagging your posts.

The struggles with your public presence and what you choose to keep private will continue to change as social networks progress in their evolution, but you can stay ahead of the game with a dose of skepticism and some healthy common sense.

Google, Snake Oil, and the Absolution of Guilt

Today, a stakeholder contacted me with a request that I hadn’t heard in so long, it almost sounded antiquated. He wanted to know “what I could do” to make a certain page rank well for a rather broad-scoped term (“small business”). The page in question was no more than a laundry list of about a dozen off-site links, with no original content native to the site itself.

About two years ago, I attended a presentation hosted by PhillyCHI, a Philadelphia-based user experience group. The speaker was talking about search, specifically the pitfalls of SEO. One of his quotes has continued to resonate with me since: “Everyone ranks well for something. So what [terms] do you want to be known for?” This statement goes both ways: you can strive to have your site appear high in the roster of results for vague terms like “small business” (which is an unenviable and Herculean task), or focus on making sure you’re targeting the right audiences by crafting your content appropriately.

In other words, in order to rank well, and I mean truly well, you need to have the real deal: relevant, original content that is well-written, thoughtfully organized, and regularly updated.

These attributes have always been hallmarks of a solid web presence, but clever blackhat tricks allowed the chaff to be more visible than the wheat. It’s what gave SEO and SEM the dark marks and shady reputations they continue to bear today.

Search algorithms are much cleverer these days, however. You can’t tweak the page code or load the content with keywords to artificially inflate the importance of your site; doing so is a fast track to getting your site blacklisted, banned, or worse. Google’s PageRank, once a barometer of success, is now considered to be pretty much irrelevant. Social media mentions in search results are fast becoming a real-time ticker stream of user-contributed content.

These changes are all welcome, as far as I’m concerned. As the trickery which can be used to abuse SEO and SEM becomes circumvented by evolving search engine algorithms and the rise of social media channels, clients and content owners become more culpable for the success of their sites. It’s given the web designers and developers of the world something akin to absolution of guilt, insofar as search rankings are concerned. The folks who come to us with ideas on how they want to launch “world class websites” and have them be on the first page of Google now need to make certain they have the means, budget, and resources to generate solid content and keep up with the workload. Otherwise, they have little or no chance of true success.

This doesn’t mean us web designers and developers can relax on our laurels; good content strategy, information architecture, and solid, semantic coding remain as vital as ever to making sure those clever little spiders can still do their indexing.

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