Response To Charlene Li’s Analysis Of Bing’s Facebook Integration

Charlene Li wrote up a brief analysis of Bing’s integration of Facebook within search results.  However, she gets quite a bit wrong in her post.  I don’t have any problems with her relatively objective intro of what the integration is (for a much deeper analysis, check out Danny Sullivan’s post).  It’s her section on “power shifts” I think is misguided.

Let’s go through the shifts she claims, and why I’m not sold on her thoughts:

SEO will lose relevance. Search engine optimization (SEO) — where a Web or content person tweaks a web page to get higher SERP positions — will lose effectiveness as search results become more influenced by social signals. While a company could potentially manipulate “likes” for an item or Web page, marketers can’t SEO your friends. The result: better search results for people who leverage their social graph, because the search results will include more relevant data.

There are so many things wrong with this statement I’m not even sure where to start.  Let’s go through just a few off the top of my head:

  • SEO is not merely “tweaking a web page to get higher SERP positions.”  Charlene seriously has to know better than this.
  • Just because Bing throws Facebook into the mix doesn’t mean it’s an entirely new thing – Google is already leveraging our social graphs in search today.  Further, search results are already influenced by social signals – Google looks at more than 200 signals including links, which are driven by social both directly and indirectly.
  • Social integration within search is not a “killer signal” because your network (specifically Facebook in this case) is made up of your friends vs. those with a deep understanding of specific subjects.  And even if it includes people in your industry, what happens when I want to find something none of my friends are interested in (frequently the reason I’m searching in the first place).
  • You can’t “SEO your friends” but you can optimize content.  And at the end of the day, search engines find, index and rank content.  Merely “likes” alone (just like merely links alone) are not and will never be the only signal taken into account, content itself will always matter too.
  • Likes don’t have anchor text the same way a link does, making them a far less useful a signal than likes.
  • Your social graph does not have more relevant data than the open web.  Not even close.  Why?  Your social graph lacks diversity, aggregation and incentives:  the three elements that go into group decision making in a way that produces accurate results. Diversity reduces the collective error.  Aggregation assures that everyone’s information is included.  Incentives help reduce individual errors by encouraging people to participate only when they think they have an insight.  Social scientist Scott Page’s diversity prediction theorem has research backing this up.  With Facebook limiting your social graph to 5,000 friends, that does not offer the same scale of decision making the open web does to point to the best content.  Now if Bing can leverage Facebook likes at the macro level, then it becomes a more worthwhile signal (but still, links accomplish this on an even larger scale).
  • User behavior in Facebook is not the same as threading the open web, because there is different motivation to use the network than keep a niche-specific site.  Notice I linked to Charlene’s post in this thread, yet I don’t “like” it on Facebook.  Far different motivations here.
  • Google, Yahoo and Bing all embrace SEO and provide a set of webmaster tools to ensure designers and developers get the critical data they need to optimize their sites and troubleshoot problems.  I know this seems un-related but Charlene’s post had an undertone that SEO and Google specifically are losing relevance.  Even if that was the case (it’s not) SEO applies to all search engines – including both Facebook search and Bing.  And the right SEO is not spam or manipulation, rather it is helping the engines deliver the best possible user experience.  That’s why all the major search engines embrace SEO done properly, it helps make their product better.
  • Most companies with enterprise sites have SEOs in-house to manage both external and site-search.  Also, it is amusing to me that Charlene is so quick to dismiss SEO as “losing relevance” when even Facebook is hiring SEOs.

Socially connected people will make more money. If I have a great set of friends, I’ll be able to make better decisions because of more relevant search results. People in my network will start noticing the benefits of likes from their friends and be motivated to be more socially connected as well. It’s the classic network effect, but rather than be driven by purely social incentives, there are clear monetary ones as well — getting better deals, finding things faster, etc.

I agree that socially connected people will make more money – but the reason for this is not due to Bing integrating Facebook into their search results.  That’s not the core explanation.  Also, the intersection between social media and SEO is already here today, ready to be leveraged.  Search and social are not at odds, they work together if you plan for it.

Bing’s social search hits Google right between the eyes. Google has recently been making noises that it wants access to Facebook’s social graph, calling for the company to be more open. That’s because Google realizes that unless it can harness social graph data, it will be relegated to traditional algorithmic search based primarily on the information on the Web page itself and scrapping what social data it can. You can see some of Google’s early attempts at social search at http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/10/introducing-google-social-search-i.html.

Not sure that social search alone is enough to hit Google between the eyes — other than by pundits.  Bing’s search market share is tiny even with Yahoo brought in the mix compared with Google.  With the addition of Google Instant, they continue to gain search market share.  As noted by Fortune:  while search queries were up 4% overall in September from August , Google doubled the industry’s gain as a whole with 66.1 percent of searches conducted in September.

Further, while Bing has to resort to trying to tell us they’re the engine for the early adopters, Google already is.  I’m as much a believer in social media to drive business outcomes as Charlene, but in this case I think she is overvaluing Bing’s limited integration of Facebook.  She ignores the fact that Google produces such strong results due to taking into account many sources of information, not just one signal from one network.  I’m not saying that it isn’t an interesting signal – it is.  I’m just saying there is more to search relevancy than any one signal.

Because Microsoft’s Bing is the privileged search provider on Facebook, it enjoys special access to the social graph and data that no one else does. That’s going to be a huge competitive advantage in a social-driven world, where users and marketers (and their search dollars) will flock to the search engine that performs.

This is the opinion of Charlene and not really backed by anything else.  Most people don’t even know what a browser is, yet alone have any idea what social search is.  The average person will use the search engine which provides the best user experience, and last time I checked Google does a pretty fantastic job of that, better than Bing or Yahoo.  Bing has potential but they’re not at a point of disrupting Google yet, and I don’t think that Facebook integration is going to be the feature that tilts the power balance.  Brand affinity for Google is strong, and my bet is they don’t suffer attrition merely because Bing has social graph data from Facebook.

Also, consider privileged access won’t last if Google decides getting direct access to Facebook’s social graph is too valuable.  It’s not in Facebook’s interest to limit themselves just to Bing, their dreams are far too big.  They’ll likely end up working with Google too if Google pushes the issue.

Does it seem unlikely that Bing could unseat Google? It’s happened before. Remember that Yahoo used to be the search leader until Google came on the scene because of its new approach to search. So look for this new phase to come with significant changes.

I’ll bet against Bing unseating Google for this specific reason.  It’s only one feature – they’ll have to do a lot more.  Further, even if they did unseat Google – it still doesn’t kill SEO.  Search is a core function of the web, it’s not going away.  And as long as we’re searching, optimization will be integral and the engines will continue to embrace it.

Scott Allen also has an interesting perspective left as a comment on Charlene’s blog:

Google tried this a year ago.

Long before that (2006), Eurekster was doing “social search” and catching a lot of buzz — awards from Red Herring and AlwaysOn. So were others, including Scour, Wink, etc.

Did they turn the search engine world upside down? No.

Why not? Because it’s fundamentally flawed to think that I’m going to be most interested in the same things my friends are. While it’s true that people tend to know other people who are somewhat like themselves, at least in a few high-level demographic and psychographic profile data points, humans are far more diverse and complex than this mistaken assumption allows for. Furthermore, so are the friendships we build, especially in the virtual Babylon of Facebook. My friends are all over the world, ranging from starting artists to multi-millionaires, and running the entire length of the political and religious spectra.

Plus, frankly, I’m smarter than most of them, at least in terms of knowing what I’m looking for.

Forget social search. What I want is a search engine that learns MY tastes, not one that tries to impose my friends’ tastes on me.

Conclusion

As someone who provides both SEO and social media consulting for companies large and small — I think that marketing and PR professionals need to take a holistic view of digital marketing.  While some industry leaders like Charlene Li and Steve Rubel continue to downplay SEO, that’s actually mistake.  And while some SEOs downplay social, that’s a mistake too.  It’s not or, but and. Embracing a mix of approaches relevant to your brand (whether social, SEO, email, PPC, etc.) in an objective-driven manner  is how companies, marketers and PR professionals will move the needle.  Ignoring or downplaying certain tactics because they’re complex, un-sexy or misunderstood is equally a mistake as embracing or hyping others because they’re trendy.

What are your thoughts?