On the night of July 24, 2014, the "Pigeon" update hit Google's search results.
This update doesn't target spammy sites like Penguin, or content mills like Panda.
No, Pigeon does something very different.
It dramatically alters the landscape of the local search query, virtually spelling the end for Google's local listing pack:
The number of search queries containing a local search pack has dropped from 12 to 3 percent, a seventy-five percent drop.
Needless to say, this has caused a lot of movement in the search results for local businesses, with inevitable winners and losers as a result.
What many seemed to have missed about the update, however, is how this relates to Google+ (and social media in general) as SEO tactics. If you were counting on Google+ becoming some messianic tool that would allow Google to finally understand your true influence and authority, the news doesn't look good.
In fact, Pigeon is probably just the beginning.
A Dramatic Shift at Google
If you aren't aware of some of the massive political shifts that have taken place at Google, let me fill you in.
On April 24, Vic Gundotra, the father of Google+, announced that he was leaving the company. On top of that, there don't appear to be any plans to put anybody else in charge of it. The Google Hangouts team is being moved over to Android. Moreover, sources suggest that those who have been focused on Google+ over the past few years will instead be focusing on building "widgets" that use the Google+ platform, rather than focusing on Google+ itself.
One of the most important shifts, however, is the fact that Google is abandoning its policy of requiring Google+ integration to use Google products. The massive PR failure that was the YouTube comment integration with Google+ has taught the company a lesson: they are a search company first and foremost, and they have abandoned any interest in competing with Facebook or Twitter as a social platform. In fact, the YouTube comment abomination very well could be the straw that broke Vic Gundotra's back.
Of course, the change that SEOs have felt the most, before Pigeon that is, was of course the removal of the Google Authorship photos. This change clearly removed one major incentive for webmasters to join Google+, representative of the other changes happening at Google. It's also very likely that the change was closely related to a new focus on mobile technologies, along with the search result redesign that shrunk available title space.
Pigeon: Rebranding Local/Social Search as Web Search
In this context, what does Pigeon really mean?
At least part of it has to do with recent accusations made by Yelp that Google was favoring its own properties over theirs. However, I would be surprised if Google is doing this simply to cave to Yelp's demands, since any lawsuit they might face would probably result in relatively small financial losses compared to Google's massive budget.
Search engine land reports that Google has told them:
...the new local search algorithm ties deeper into their web search capabilities, including the hundreds of ranking signals they use in web search along with search features such as Knowledge Graph, spelling correction, synonyms and more.
What does that mean?
It means that the ranking factors that work for global online sites now have more influence on local sites. This has important implications. It means that traditional local signals like citations, ratings, and (ahem...Google+) reviews are going to have less influence.
For example, here's what I get when I search for "local pizza" over here in Pocatello, ID:
To be frank, these search results suck in comparison to the local search pack and I find them far less useful. Directories and major pizza places are massively favored, and the "local" businesses that show up are in Boise, a 3.5 hour drive away.
Whatever the reason, it's clear that Google is more interested in returning traditional search results than Google Places/Google+ listings, and that means local businesses had better start setting up websites and ranking them.
Google Plus: These Are Not the Ranking Factors You're Looking For
Can I say you told you so? Because I'm going to say I told you so.
In January of 2013, I warned that spam was probably going to ruin rich snippets for us at some point down the road.
Whether or not spam was the cause, that day appears to have already arrived. Google is intent on uncluttering the search results. Authorship photos have been removed. The local pack isn't completely gone, but it's close. Google+ profile content is all but gone. I suspect the star ratings will stay with us for quite some time, but we can't be too sure.
One thing's for sure: Google has given up on making Google+ a competitive social network. And this should also tell us something about the future of "social signals" as a ranking factor.
I warned at the end of 2012 and again at the beginning of this year that Google does not use "social media metrics" to rank websites, and that there are good reasons to think that they never will. Matt Cutts has also come right out and said:
As far as doing special, specific work to sort of say, "Oh you have this many followers on Twitter or this many Likes on Facebook," to the best of my knowledge, we don't currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms...
...We've had at least one experience where we were blocked from crawling for about a month and a half. And so the idea of doing a lot of special engineering work to try to extract some data from webpages when we might get blocked from being able to crawl those webpages in the future, is something where the engineers would be a little bit leery about doing that.
Of course, the standard response has always been that Google has access to their own Google+ data, so they might start using that. Matt Cutts has, of course, also come right out and said that they don't use Google+ to rank sites, and I've argued that it would be a very bad idea for them to cannibalize their own +1 button by making it a ranking factor.
Pigeon has proven that Google is no longer interested in promoting Google+ at every possible opportunity. Using Google+ activity as a ranking factor would be tantamount to telling webmasters they need to use Google+ in order to beat their competitors in Google search results. This would be a terrible PR move, possibly worse than the YouTube comment debacle, and the changes listed above make it clear that Google is not interested in requiring anybody to use Google+ in order to accomplish anything.
The idea that web search and social media will ever become one is dead.
While Google's "search plus your world" feature still technically exists, the personalized features have been dramatically downplayed due to a lack of interest from the public. The same goes for the Bing/Facebook incorporation.
Google has had roughly five years to incorporate social signals into its algorithm, and they haven't done it yet. To me, this can only mean one thing: they tried it internally and it didn't work.
This shouldn't be terribly surprising given what we know now. The CEO of Chartbeat dropped a massive bomb back in February:
We've found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading
Chartbeat is the kind of place where access to that kind of data actually exists, so this shouldn't be taken lightly.
If Google's goal is to show people the best content, it stands to reason that they should use metrics which indicate that people have actually consumed the content. Unfortunately, it seems that people share content on social networks to keep up appearances, not necessarily because they actually spend any time consuming content. Shares say more about titles than they do about content.
While it's obvious that social sharing can drive traffic, it is now equally obvious that social metrics such as Likes and tweets are essentially useless indicators of content quality, and +1s are in the same boat.
As for Google+, I want to be clear. It's a good place to have topical conversations and connect with influencers. It can have indirect benefits for your SEO as a result. Conversations on Google+ are generally more topically oriented than conversations on Facebook (and there are essentially no actual conversations happening on Twitter).
Social media can be a useful digital marketing tool if you know what you're doing, but if you think it's directly helping your SEO, it's time to let go.
Remember all those tear-jerking commercials Google put out a year or two ago to persuade people to use Google+? That's not what they're advertising anymore. No, Google is declaring that their identity crisis is over, and that they are a search company. They seem to believe it is especially important to get this message across to teens (likely because they were the ones most offended by the YouTube comment debacle).
Their new tagline? "Search on."
Google has moved on, and you should to.