Danny Sullivan on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Social and Search

Published: August 8, 2011

photo of Danny Sullivan

Key Interview Points

In this interview with Danny, we delve deeply into Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Social signals in search, and the value of a holistic approach to Internet marketing. There was just too much in this one for me to summarize everything in the key interview points below, so consider these a bit of a teaser for the good stuff you will find within this discussion. As always, many of the key points listed here are summaries of the conversation rather than quotes.

  1. Google+ offers really good support for threaded discussions.
  2. (Danny) “It’s disappointing that there is no way to allow the Hangout to be open for public viewing and no ability to record, maybe these things will come.”
  3. Google Buzz was crippled by automatically incorporating Gmail contacts. Google+ did not make this mistake.
  4. (Danny) “It’s easy to get lost in Google+, Twitter is more efficient with your time.”
  5. (Danny) “One of the exhausting things on Google+ is it’s easy to get lost reading through comments to see what people are saying and how they are reacting.”
  6. (Danny) “… even though the links themselves might be no-follow, they may still calculate they were a shared link and that might be giving you a signal.”
  7. (Danny) “Absolutely, I think it (Google+) has a chance of being significant in terms of Bing significant or in terms of being much closer to a rival. It’s similar to what’s going on with Bing and Google.”
  8. When you see a picture of a person to the right of a SERP, it is a result of the rel=author tag.
  9. (Danny) “I am finding (Google+) Circles to be exhausting. I created all these circles, and there is the decision: what Circle do I put them in?”
  10. (Danny) “When I look at the numbers, I find Bing seems to be gaining from Yahoo more than anything else.”
  11. (Danny) “Potentially, Google+ is a threat to Twitter, but there is a lot to be said for Twitter’s simplicity.”
  12. (Danny) “Many people say there is an exact formula to what you should do on Twitter but there is no one right formula.”
  13. (Danny) “The brands get excited about the customer service role (for Twitter), but I think they ought to be handling customer service through their regular channels so people don’t feel they have to yell out on Twitter.”
  14. (Danny) “Search has his cousin called discovery … (and) social is very strong at providing that.”

Overall impressions of Google+

Google+ Eric Enge: Other than the horrible name Google+, which you are on record stating your thoughts about, what do you think?

Most impressive is the amount of commenting a post can generate in Google+.

Danny Sullivan: I’ve been impressed with a lot of it. Most impressive is the amount of commenting a post can generate. It’s somewhat phenomenal that you can put something out and suddenly five, ten, twenty people jump in on it.

Compared to Twitter, you make a remark and you may get two or three tweets. Sometimes it might catch fire but it’s not consolidated in one place. Google+ generates a lot of activity and I wonder what will happen if more people get involved.

Eric Enge: I agree with you that the threading is much better. I think that’s a big plus.

Danny Sullivan: I think the commenting has been useful to see. For example, I have a large collection of people that I follow and joke that it is like going from middle school to high school. You recognize many of your friends but there are many new people that you haven’t seen before.

If you start over with the social network, you may get exposed to people that you hadn’t thought of before and you hadn’t connected with. It is a time consuming and painful process doing that over again.

Eric Enge: What about the Hangouts, have you done anything with that?

It’s disappointing that there is no way to allow the Hangout to be open for public viewing and no ability to record, maybe these things will come.

Danny Sullivan: I jumped into one when I saw Bradley Horowitz on. It was interesting because he said a couple of things that were news without having to schedule an interview. They get busy quickly so you have to move fast.

One of the disappointing things is that they don’t allow you to let the Hangout be open for other people to view. Also, there is no ability to record. I think both would be useful. Maybe these things will come.

Eric Enge: Obviously, it’s the first thing out of the gate. Now the question is, “are they going to follow-up on it?” This was missing from some of the other social initiatives put out there by Google.

Danny Sullivan: When you compare it to Buzz, there are a few crippling things that hit Buzz. First, Buzz rolled out in a way that made people feel it violated their privacy.

Eric Enge: Right, by automatically incorporating Gmail contacts.

Danny Sullivan: Yes, exactly. You had this thing thrust upon you, which you didn’t necessarily ask for, and that gave it a bad taste from the beginning. Then they allowed the ability to pull an RSS feed in fairly quickly. That may have been a mistake because I piped in my Twitter feed and a number of people said “whatever I am doing on Twitter, or another service, I could just pipe it into here.”

This turned Buzz into what FriendFeed was. It was nice if you wanted to see what everybody is saying, or you had friends across different social services. It didn’t necessarily inspire people to think “I should be doing original content here,” and it never seemed to take off.

They don’t have the RSS import now, so if you want to post on Google+ you have to go there and come up with something that you want to put there. It’s driving you back to the site each time.

Eric Enge: Are you thinking of the audiences differently? What do you post to Google+ versus Twitter?

It’s easy to get lost in Google+, Twitter is more efficient with your time.

Danny Sullivan: A little bit. I will post more “+” things to Google+ than to Twitter because it makes sense when to go there. On Twitter I might express a small gripe, such as my computer crashed, because that is more of a Twitter type thing. I’ve shared some things across both, but Google+ made it easier for me to share multiple pictures because of the way the Android App works. You can do it with Twitter but it’s harder and it depends on which app you are using. Some allow multiple pictures, some don’t.

There is a concern that some people may follow you in both places, and you don’t want them to see the same stuff. I am not worried about it and actually started posting out onto Facebook more than usual this week because I thought I should be doing stuff there. However, I wonder if I am going to have time.

One of the exhausting things on Google+ is it’s easy to get lost reading through comments to see what people are saying and how they are reacting. I feel Twitter is much more efficient because with one click I can see if anybody has sent me a reply. Even though Google has notifications that work well, it’s still easy to get locked into reading a discussion about what everybody is saying. This is useful in a many ways but also very time consuming.

(Note: After Danny and I had this discussion, he wrote a post calling Google out for the way it has handled brands on Google+).

Google+ as a ranking signal

Ranking Signals Eric Enge: What about Google+ as a ranking signal?

Danny Sullivan: I think they are using +1 for social search, but they haven’t said they’ve integrated it as a general ranking signal. I certainly think that will come.

It’s getting very confusing about what they use or what they say they don’t use. That’s why I wrote the article “What social signals do Bing and Google really count” last December. (Note: Since we did this interview we have gotten first confirmation that Google+ is influencing Google rankings).

I was trying to get them to be very clear about what they did. They said “well, we are using some limited things here, we are using some limited things there,” and we discovered for the first time that your Twitter links actually were follow links. They weren’t no-follow because they got a fire hose of data from Twitter via the API. Therefore, all those links actually carry credit because the fire hose didn’t have no-follow attached to it. Who knew?

Even though the Twitter links themselves might be no-follow, they may still calculate that they were a shared link and that might be giving you a signal.

Now the Google – Twitter fire hose deal has ended. So, supposedly, all those links on Twitter don’t count anymore, but Google told me recently we can still count up all the links and try to figure out how much something is being shared. So, potentially, if one of their ranking signals is how much something is being shared then, even though the links themselves might be no-follow, they may still calculate they were a shared link and that might be giving you a signal.

On the one hand, it’s maddening if you are trying to figure it out. On the flip side, I think it’s foolish to get that specific about it. When we did our Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors, one of the things I put on there was social as a factor.

You can get lost trying to decide whether or not you think that is Facebook share counting or not share counting and does this tweet count. The best way to look at it is ask yourself, “what are the major social networks, are you active on them and do you have a good reputation on them.”

Even if it doesn’t help you with search down the line, it’s probably a good traffic generator to do. That’s what link building was all about. Link building was an activity you did independently of search, and then the search engines began valuing links.

Even if that link you got never paid off for you in terms of search credit, it potentially paid off for you in terms of traffic. So, sometimes I think we can get too involved around search when we should be looking at the bigger picture.

Eric Enge: I think the search engine is trying to use as many signals as they can to get good quality data. Part of it is to make it more obscure, to make it harder for people to spend so much time figuring out exactly how it works so it can be gamed, and get people to focus on producing good stuff and promoting it.

Think of all the energy that goes into whether the tweet is close to this word or not, and the impact of that. All the energy you put into that could probably have gotten your link tweeted twenty more times.

Does Google+ have a chance?

Facebook versus Google Eric Enge: John Batelle recently put out a post that said he thinks Google+ is a legitimate threat to Facebook, but Facebook is still the one to beat, which is obviously true. Do you think Google+ has a chance? Not on beating Facebook necessarily, but of being significant?

Danny Sullivan: Absolutely, I think it has a chance of being significant in terms of Bing significant or in terms of being much closer to a rival. It’s similar to what’s going on with Bing and Google.

Bing has a significant search engine that people should consider and it has a lot to offer. However, it is far from being the market leader. It continues to play catch up and is well behind Google. It may never become the #1 choice simply because many people like Google.

With the Google-Facebook situation, a lot of people are happy with what they have on Facebook. They don’t particularly think Facebook needs to change, their friends are there and they are having their set. I think it’s a tough challenge for Google to try to unseat it. However, I think it has a chance to build itself up as a strong alternative.

The rel=author tag

Danny Sullivan rel author Eric Enge: What is driving the pictures of people showing up in the Google SERPs, over on the right?

Danny Sullivan: That’s the Google rel=author tag that was rolled out. This is where you’ve identified yourself as an author. It’s a beta program, and I don’t think it’s happening automatically for everyone. I know they put me into it so when you search you see my face staring out of you because I’ve got my author tag setup. That should be pictures of people who are authors.

Social Networks are here to stay

Social Networking Eric Enge: Data came out in May indicating a decline for Facebook in the US and Canada and getting beyond 50% penetration was an obstacle. I look at my high school kids, and all the high school kids I know, and the penetration is a 100%.

Every kid has Facebook accounts that they use for their basic mode of communication. Do you think this little perturbation of dropping briefly is something that’s going to disappear overtime?

Danny Sullivan: Social networks are a digital expansion of ourselves. If you look at search, it is a digital way for us to do what we always did, which was ask questions, just more efficiently. I think social is the same kind of thing. It has digitized us. It has allowed us to connect.

We are not going to put that genie back in the bottle. Personally, I love that I can connect with people I don’t know and am friends with them. People have had bulletin boards for ages so I don’t think that’s going to go away.

Eric Enge: How far do you think this penetration will go? I argue the penetration is vectoring towards 100%, or very close, over a period of decades.

Danny Sullivan: I don’t know that you ever get to 100% of anything, but I could see us having 90% or more people. The penetration is high, if you want to count email as a social network. It’s odd that we don’t think more about email. People kind of despise it, but if I was going to do a civil war documentary reading emails from soldiers, you probably would find it very touching.

Eric Enge: We’ve got email but kids don’t use email, unless they are forced to.

Danny Sullivan: Zuckerberg said when it came to Facebook messages they don’t need email. They have other ways of keeping in touch. I would argue that what they are doing is still email.

Someone might say, “I am giving up email for a month and won’t miss it.” If you still communicate with people through direct messages, Facebook messages, and Google+, you didn’t necessarily give up email the way you thought you would.

You’ve given up traditional email but not given up the concept of communicating with people digitally. It’s changing, and we may not have traditional email accounts. People will have other ways of connecting.

What will Facebook’s reaction be to Google+?

Facebook Eric Enge: Do you think Facebook will adapt Google+ features, like a better way to do Groups or Hangout?

Danny Sullivan: Last week Zuckerberg basically said not to expect any changes quickly, and he tried to downplay it. He said when it came to Lists, only 5% of the people or Groups actually made use of them at Facebook. He doesn’t think that’s something many people want to use.

I think he is probably right. I wrote an article yesterday on how I am finding Circles to be exhausting. I created all these Circles, and there is the decision: what circle do I put them in?

I will end up with what I already have which is a small group of things that are for my family, maybe a group of things that are for real friends, and then everything else. It will be interesting to see what numbers we get from Google in terms of how much private sharing is going on.

Eric Enge: In Google’s introductory video for circles, they highlighted the indecision aspect. You see them dragging a face of a prospect around; Acquaintance? Friend? I am not sure how well having you spend more time making a decision will do as a feature.

When I first saw circles I didn’t think that’s the killer product.

Danny Sullivan: I am curious to see how it goes, but when I first saw circles I didn’t think that’s the killer product. I think some people will find it appealing that Google+ may allow them to reset or restart their social network. When I started with Facebook I accepted everybody as a friend. Now it’s not worth the time to drop a thousand people because I might want to share something more personal on Facebook.

It is much easier for me to say everything I do on Facebook is public. Other people may not feel the same way. They may want a venue to share privately, so maybe Google+ will resonate with them.

As for Hangouts, Facebook said people tend to do one-on-one communication. It is difficult for me to tell how much Hangout will turn into a compelling reason to be using Google+. Young kids may think it’s cool. If all their friends are going to be there, and they hang out with them on a regular basis, then it becomes much more compelling.

That could be the thing that brings people over from Facebook. If that happens, I think Facebook would quickly ramp up and come out with its own feature It’s much easier to list all the things Facebook has that Google+ doesn’t have including Like buttons, that let you Like things into your stream, brands that do not have to pretend not to be brands or hope that you don’t kill them.

The Bing-Facebook deal

Eric Enge: Do you think the Bing-Facebook deal is a significant advantage for Bing? Is it something that can help them make progress?

Danny Sullivan: Potentially. The big advantage they have is automatically personalizing your results. If those personal results are better, and your friends are showing up on it, you may like it more. That’s something Google can’t do. Even though they ramped it up big in the last two months, it hasn’t been that dramatic of a change.

Eric Enge: In Compete I saw numbers that said Bing has 14% and Yahoo has 16%, but website stats I look at do not show the cumulative total of Bing and Yahoo near 30%.

When I look at the numbers, I find Bing seems to be gaining from Yahoo more than anything else.

Danny Sullivan: When I look at the numbers, I find Bing seems to be gaining from Yahoo more than anything else. This is what I expected when Yahoo got out of the search game, which they won’t say they got out of search but to me they did.

Does Google+ Threaten Twitter?

Twitter Eric Enge: It seems to me that the Google+ stream is more of a threat to Twitter then to Facebook.

Danny Sullivan: Potentially. For me it’s sitting in the middle ground. On Google+ I can write a bit longer post if I want to. I also find it a little easier to share some photos. One of the things I find remarkable is that I check in on Google+. This is something I would never do on Twitter because it doesn’t allow you to check in. Nonetheless, when I see people check in using Foresquare and send it to Twitter, I get annoyed because it feels unnatural.

Google+ encourages me to check in as part of the native settings, and I enjoy doing it. No one has complained about it. It’s been the opposite with people commenting their interest, so I’ve made an effort to share something and check in.

Potentially, Google+ is a threat to Twitter, but there is a lot to be said for Twitter’s simplicity.

Potentially, Google+ is a threat to Twitter, but there is a lot to be said for Twitter’s simplicity. The little short bursts make it easy to digest. It makes it easy to dive in and dive out without having to spend a huge amount of time. This is perhaps a disadvantage for Twitter in trying to make money, but it is a much bigger advantage if you are relatively short on time. It is something Twitter needs to pay attention to, but it’s difficult for them to change because they would have to change the core part of what Twitter is.

Eric Enge: It took me a while to understand that the compelling feature of Twitter was the ability to communicate with a relative lack of commitment to the communication. Twitter allows us to throw something out there, a simple brief comment, and then move on.

Danny Sullivan: Right.

Eric Enge: It seems a large percentage of Twitter messages are personal. I looked at seventeen of your posts and twelve of them were of a personal nature. People are showing more about themselves and seeming more human. It plays a role in building trust and relationships. Google+ for example, is much centered on topical communications. Of course, that could change over time.

Danny Sullivan: It’s really hard to pin down. What I find predominantly being shared in my stream on Google+ is stuff about Google+. It’s easy then for me to conclude people only talk about Google+.

Recently, there has been more of a mixture, and people are trying to deliberately come up with other stuff. I don’t know if people necessarily know what it is they should be doing on Google+.

Eric Enge: Does this personal approach on Twitter, in your opinion, have much to offer in terms of building trust between a company and their audience?

There is no exact formula to what you should do on Twitter.

Danny Sullivan: Many people say there is an exact formula to what you should do on Twitter but there is no one right formula. SEOMoz does a lot of engagement, and we do virtually no engagement on Search Engine Land. Yet, our follower accounts are about the same.

We viewed our accounts as a way for people to keep up with what we are publishing on the site and that seemed to work for people. They had more of a focus on a customer service role, and that seemed to work for them.

The brands get excited about the customer service role, but I think they ought to be handling customer service through their regular channels so people don’t feel they have to yell out on Twitter.

Eric Enge: I guess the problem is if you hadn’t screwed it up with them in the first place then they wouldn’t need it.

Danny Sullivan: Exactly. Maybe it does work as a final alert or a safety valve. Ultimately, how you act on Twitter will be how you think you should act and what feedback your followers give you about how you should act. I don’t think you have to put a lot of personal stuff because you are a brand. I think that’s an essential thing for me personally, but it might not work for some brands.

Search and Social

Eric Enge: Let’s talk a little more about the integration of search and social. I interviewed Stefan Weitz and he saw search becoming an integrating dashboard for certain types of queries. For example, if you search for a “romantic dinner Austin”, you would certainly see what restaurants your friends liked. In the future you might see who is there right now and if they’ve checked in, and you could book a reservation right there in search results.

Search has his cousin called discovery and social is very strong at providing that.

Danny Sullivan: I think it’s a mixture of things. I think search has his cousin called discovery, which is showing you things that you didn’t necessarily know you wanted or needed, but you are happy to have come across. I think social is very strong at providing that.

You tap into Facebook and find an interesting news article which never occurred to you to search. That’s something search doesn’t do well because search is an on-demand activity. That’s why it makes sense for Google to play in the social space, so they can tap into this discovery process.

In social, your friends can get signals that potentially improve your search results in an age when links are becoming less and less important. Social shares from people you know. They are the new link building and are a more trusted signal.

It is easier to get people to do it because people share things more freely. There are signals that can be tapped into that are important for search to continue to improve, but, in terms of being a dashboard, I don’t know if it overtakes everything. I think it continues to be another signal that’s used, but not necessarily the secret key to magically improving everything.

Eric Enge: So, at a high level, we could think of the search interface remaining the on-demand interface, as opposed to a discovery-oriented interface.

Danny Sullivan: Two things: first, when a pipe breaks in your house do you go onto Facebook and ask friends who you should call or do you go to Google and search for a plumber? You search for a plumber. It’s an on demand need.

On the other hand, you need a dentist, it’s not an emergency, and you need a good recommendation. Tapping into your friends is very powerful. How the search engines figure out a way to integrate that is a next big step.

I see people do the “Anyone knows” searches on Facebook and Twitter. They are looking for recommendations. Finding a way to integrate your search for a dentist on Google, and also making it clear to your social network that you are looking for help, is perhaps the holy grail.

At the SMX Advanced show, Rand Fishkin from SEOMoz talked about their latest study which Facebook Shares were highly correlated with Google Rankings.

Eric Enge: But not causation.

Danny Sullivan: Not causation, but they are highly correlated. He diligently said he was not saying that a lot of Facebook Shares means you will rank well on Google but, rather, that there was an interesting connection that seemed to be occurring.

Independently of that, I think it’s a good idea to get a lot of Shares on Facebook. Facebook is a huge area and getting Facebook Shares means traffic. So, why wouldn’t you want that regardless of the search engines?

Of course, at the end of the same day at SMX Advanced, Matt Cutts said “well, it’s an interesting correlation, but we don’t use the Share data.”

Takeaways

Eric Enge: There are many people who, if they saw a strong correlation between Shared data and rankings, would artificially create and manipulate things so they get more Shares without necessarily thinking ,”oh well, why don’t I go behave in a way that causes people to want to Share my stuff.”

This more holistic approach is surprisingly effective. The approach I focus on is trying to publish good sites and promote them effectively.

Danny Sullivan: It works really, really well. The first time I saw a doorway page, which was around 1998, I didn’t really get it. It hadn’t occurred to me that someone will try to build content without actually having a content site. There are people who will chase for the algorithm and not have a content site behind it.

Without trying to pass judgment on it, that’s just not me. It’s not the audience I am trying to help. My assumption is if you want to do well in search engines in the long term it is good to have a good content site. That is what they seem to reward.

That brings me back to the Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors that we put together. I wanted to list these different factors that people should pay attention to. I wanted to do it in a way that they didn’t get lost in the forest. I did not want them to climb up one specific tree in that forest because it’s more important. I want them to be socially active. That seems to be a useful thing if you want to do well in search engines.

If you know what you are doing, then getting to more specifics can be helpful. There are too many people who don’t know what they are doing when it comes to Search Engine Optimization, and those kinds of specifics lose them and set them down the wrong trails.

You can see self-evidently that social media channels generate traffic.

It’s the same thing when it comes to social. They argue whether or not this Facebook Share is going to count versus a LinkedIn share versus a Twitter share, and if there is a no-follow or if there is not a no-follow. You can see that social media channels generate traffic. If that is traffic that’s converting for you then you should be social.

You can also see that the search engines are experimenting with how to use social signals. Even if you don’t know exactly how they are doing it, it behooves you to be active socially because chances are it’s going to increase some of those signals, and you are going to be giving out the right ones.

Eric Enge: If something is tweeted a million times, whether the link is followed or no-followed, a search engine is going to take notice. In the interview I did with Vanessa Fox, I ended up calling it A holistic view of Panda because we have a lot of this kind of discussion in there.

Danny Sullivan: There is a lack of holistic thinking out there. Maybe that will change. The reality is it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Eric Enge: Thanks Danny!

About Danny

Widely considered a leading “search engine guru,” Danny Sullivan has been helping webmasters, marketers and everyday web users understand how search engines work for 15 years. Danny’s expertise about search engines is often sought by the media, and he has been quoted in places like The Wall St. Journal, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, Forbes, The New Yorker and Newsweek and ABC’s Nightline.

Danny began covering search engines in late 1995, when he undertook a study of how they indexed web pages. The results were published online as “A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines,” a pioneering effort to answer the many questions site designers and Internet publicists had about search engines.

Danny currently heads up Search Engine Land, which covers search marketing and search engine news. He produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series, writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google+ and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Other Recent Interviews

Bruce Clay, August 1, 2011
Google’s Tiffany Oberoi, July 27, 2011
Mona Elesseily, July 18, 2011
Vanessa Fox, July 12, 2011
Jim Sterne, July 5, 2011
Stephan Spencer, June 20, 2011
SEO by the Sea’s Bill Slawski, June 7, 2011
Elastic Path’s Linda Bustos, June 1, 2011
SEOmoz’ Rand Fishkin, May 23, 2011
Bing’s Stefan Weitz, May 16, 2011
Bing’s Mikko Ollila, June 27, 2010
Yahoo’s Shashi Seth, June 20, 2010
Google’s Carter Maslan, May 6, 2010
Google’s Frederick Vallaeys, April 27, 2010
Matt Cutts, March 14, 2010

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