If you are a follower of Matt Cutts or Amit Singhal, you will know that Google’s ultimate aim for its search algorithms is to mimic human behavior. Despite all the mythology about what Google wants, there are some very common sense principles at the heart of its search processes: key among these are trust and authority.
In the past, as you’ll know if you've ever watched the video above by Matt Cutts, links used to be the primary way that Google assessed trust, but the world has moved on and the clever mathematicians and statisticians at Google are finding ways to factor in a whole host of other signifiers of trust.
Last week we ran a workshop with the Bristol & Bath Enterprise Network (BEN). Its purpose was to help people in Tech and Science businesses to understand SEO and social media marketing. At the beginning of the session we asked people to discuss how they figured out who to trust in the real world (not online). We then spent the rest of the session seeing how this translated online in terms of how Google’s algorithms might work to mimic this human decision making process and how social media might also play a part.
The list below shows real world indicators of trustworthiness / authority and then the group’s ideas of how this might be demonstrated online to Google and their target market. It’s in no particular order, other than the order they were shouted at me during the workshop.
In the real world - you might trust a brand more due to recommendations from friends & colleagues
Online this might be reflected as:
Links from relevant blogs
Mentions and links on relevant discussion forums
Likes of a brand page on Facebook
Shares / likes / comments on updates of this brand page
Brand Twitter account, followed by real people
RT’s and interaction with this the account
Brand Google+ page, circled by real people
+1s, shares and interactions with this page
In the real world, you might trust a brand more because it is almost ubiquitous and synonymous with trust (think John Lewis in the UK or Tylenol in the USA)
For most businesses it's hard to emulate this sort of mass awareness and trust unless you've been going for as long as the examples above and spending a similar amount as they might on your marketing and PR.
To get Google to notice you enough so you outperform your competition, you could start by getting broad coverage in your sector, industry or locality - this might be through press coverage on the national news, local news or trade news. For the best coverage, you'll need stories that are interesting - not just that you have a new VP of Soft Fats EMEA.
Active engagement with real people via social channels will also demonstrate that you care and are approachable. It may not give you the broad coverage you want initially but it certainly seems to give a little boost to your position in the search results if you're engaging with real people, regularly.
In the real world, one often makes a decision on 'gut feeling' or instinct. We've all been there, when we walk away from what (on the face of it) is a great deal, but something about it just doesn't feel right.
So, how can Google emulate your 'gut feel'? Well, in the land of SEO we've seen that Google has algorithms that will suppress the ranking of sites with too many flashy ads showing, lots of pop ups and certainly those which seem to be out to cunningly fox Google. Ongoing algorithm updates such as Panda and Penguin mean that Google is always trying to mathematically reproduce our gut feelings. Sometimes these updates are a little off, but mostly they're bang on target and I hope they get better and more regular.
- Note - If your SEO company is telling you that the reason you stopped ranking is because Google updated, they're probably full of shit. Google is testing updates ALL THE TIME and if you take a look at Dr Pete's brilliant Google Algorithm Change History you'll see that 500-600 updates per year stick. If you're doing things right, it's rare that you'll get badly hit by one of these updates, possible, but rare. If your SEO company is rubbish / fraudulently negligent then you've either been hit already (and they've stopped returning your calls) or you're about to be hit (and they'll tell you "Google updated" and then stop returning your calls).
A company that has a history of clear communication with its customers is often more trusted in the real world than one that is known to be secretive. Online this translates to a well organised, user friendly website with clear, concise contact details and a visible history of responding to enquiries via social channels.
Evidence of a good track record offline is increasingly visible online. For retail sites, a mechanism for soliciting genuine reviews of your products and displaying them (the good and the not so good) on your website is an absolute must.
Those of us in other industries need to encourage our clients to leave reviews on our Google+ pages, the press and via social channels.
Don't forget we're not simply doing this for vanity, this is about using your positive customer feedback to demonstrate your trustworthiness in places that Google can spot it too.
Offline, prospective customers look for a guarantee. Online, this might be clickable badges to the page(s) on trade associations that show your business is a paid up member with all the insurance and peace of mind that might bring the client. If you're a travel agent you need to be with ABTA for example, if you're claiming to be a Google AdWords expert - maybe link to your certified partner page.
Some brands are just known to put things right. Offline, Marks & Sparks will let you return pretty much anything as long as you don't take the mickey... Online you might demonstrate your commitment to putting things right by having a VISIBLE history of responding to complaints made on social channels / review sites and, um, well, putting things right!
As the old cliche has it, 'People buy from people' - But how can you show Google that you good peoples?
Start with REAL pictures (not stock images of happy, smiling teams of Americans) and good / humorous bios of the key staff and the person I’m dealing with on the website.
Links to staff social profiles (where appropriate) and help your staff make sure their social profiles are followed by trustworthy types.
Offline the people in our workshop expected 'eye contact' and 'a firm handshake' from a trustworthy supplier. That used to be tough to demonstrate to Google online, but with the advent of Google+, well attended video hangouts on your brand page can certainly indicate that you're not hiding behind a hastily thrown together website
Also - a regional phone number (not 0800 or 0845) and a real office address (not a PO Box) on your contact page helps Google see you differently to someone who is in it for a quick buck and a quick exit
Offline, you'll often find all the banks in one part of town, the fashion retailers in another and all the DIY shops in another. Online, how can Google tell your business is in the right neighbourhood?
In the UK you want to make sure your Ltd or LLP company is properly registered with Companies House for starters.
On social media, have a good think about who your brand should follow, like or circle. It probably isn't Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga.
Price online and offline, don't mess about. Just display it clearly and with minimal fuss. People like this. So does Google.
There's lots of talk of 'black hat SEO' and 'white hat SEO’ - but the thing to remember is that it SEO is often just about applying traditional sales and marketing concepts in a slightly different way.
Who do you buy from? People you trust, who give you great information, that don’t try to rip you off and give you a genuine reason to want their product. Google is trying to replicate this process in its search engine algorithms so that your online experience mirrors your real life. Simple.
Let me know below if you think we missed anything.