At SMX East this past October, I gave a presentation titled, “Putting the SEO Power of Google+ to Work.” The centerpiece of that presentation was a first peek at a study I’d conducted that seemed to confirm my hypothesis that Google+ profiles and pages gain authority for ranking in Google Search (and elsewhere in Google, as you’ll see below) in much the same way regular Web pages do.
In this article, I’m going to expand upon that presentation and lay out the full case.
Profile Ranking Mysteries: A Personal Case Study
I’ve been active on Google+ since its third day. Thanks to relationships I’d already established through Google Buzz and other social networks, I quickly built a network with many influential Google+ users. By about eight months in, I had a respectable 10,000 followers, my highest follower count ever for a social network, but hardly a Google+ superstar.
But around then, I began noticing a strange power for my profile. If I reshared a Google+ post by a highly-followed G+ user on my own profile, and then a day or two later checked Google Search (logged out of Google, cache and history cleared), time and again I found that my reshare of the original post would be the highest ranking Google+ post for the title of the original post. In other words, I was often out-ranking users with many times the number of followers I had for their own posts in search.
Here’s an example from March 2012 that will help illustrate the phenomenon.
On March 5, I reshared on Google+ a post by popular social media speaker and author Mari Smith:
Notice that when you reshare someone else’s post on Google+, the entire text of the original post is embedded in the reshare and becomes part of the reshare. Also take note of the keyword phrase in the original post.
Below is a screen capture of the actual, logged-out-of-Google top search results for [fastest growing Facebook pages] just one day after my reshare of Mari Smith’s post:
Note that my Google+ post, not Mari Smith’s, was the top ranking Google+ post (indeed, the top ranking non-news post, period) for [fastest growing Facebook pages] at that time, even though the original post was by Mari Smith. As you can see, Google even grabbed the indexed title tag text from the first line of Mari’s post, not mine.
But here’s the more startling fact: At the time, Mari Smith had 60,000 Google+ followers, six times as many as me.
This was repeated again and again, where I could very often outrank people who had far more followers than I, for their own posts, when I reshared them. At that time, most people assumed that the more followers you had or the more +1′s your posts got, the higher you would rank in search. But I was able to show that neither was necessarily the case.
This still continues to this day. I’m still able (not always, but more often than not) to outrank many highly-circled Google+ users in Google search with my reshares of their original posts — even if the original post got a lot more +1s than mine did.
So what actually did (and still does) cause some profiles to rank higher than others in Google search? If not follower count or +1 count, what was the magic factor?
Discovery: Profile & Page PageRank Authority
In the early days of Google+, a number of SEO-savvy users noticed that their profiles showed Google PageRank in toolbar PageRank tools. But then one day, toolbar PageRank stopped showing in those tools. Most assumed that Google had changed its mind about assigning PageRank to Google+ profiles.
That was, until alert SEO Joshua Berg discovered it was there all along. Working off asuggestion by Dan Petrovic that it was a change in URL structure by Google+ that caused most PageRank checking tools to show zero, Joshua revealed one tool, prchecker.net, that could properly parse the URLs and show that Google+ profiles did indeed still have Google PageRank. (Tip: The new Google+ custom URLs will not work in that tool. You must right-click on a user’s name anywhere on G+, and copy and use that URL.)
Finally, I had a possible explanation for my super-ranking abilities. I began to test, and sure enough, in case after case, if the person whose post I reshared had a lower, or at most equal, PageRank compared to me, I could outrank them in search for the same post keyword. There were always anomalies — but not so many as couldn’t be explained by either the imprecision of toolbar PageRank, or the fact that undoubtedly other factors come into play in post ranking that a 0-10 PageRank scale can’t show.
By the way, we soon discovered that in addition to profiles, Google+ pages and communities also have their own PageRank.
But questions remained: Where does this PageRank come from? How does a Google+ profile or page earn PageRank (and more importantly, the search authority it represents)?
Sources Of Google+ PageRank
Below are the internal and external sources of Google+ PageRank, followed by an initial experiment and then a more extensive study on Google+ PageRank External Links.
Since, at least on its surface, Google+ is a social network, it stands to reason that a primary source from which Google would assess profile authority would be connections within the network itself.
We know that Google uses links from regular pages on the Web as a primary means of assessing the relative authority of the pages to which they point. Google+ profiles and pages interlink with each other as well, so it makes sense that Google would use a similar strategy for Google+.
So, it’s likely that mentions, reshares, and perhaps other engagement from other users help build the PageRank authority of a profile. When you +mention someone on Google+ (type a + and their name), it creates a followed link to that person’s profile.
If the users mentioning you, resharing your posts, or otherwise engaging with you have high-authority profiles, then most likely they pass on more authority to your profile. Therefore, the more Google+ power users you network with, the higher your profile’s PageRank will probably climb.
In addition to internal authority flow within Google+, if Google has assigned PageRank to G+ profiles, pages, and communities, then it also seems likely that links from Web pages external to Google+ would also help build the authority of those G+ entities.
In the illustration above, a blogger who interviewed me linked to my Google+ profile in her blog post. That followed link should send some PageRank authority from her site to my profile.
An Initial Experiment
When I first noticed that some Google+ Communities were ranking in search for their own names, I decided to launch an experiment. We got articles written about two up-and-coming Google+ communities on several high-authority blogs, with anchor text links with each community’s name linking to the communities. Within a few days, we saw the Fitness & Nutrition community move from page 8 (logged-out search) to page 1 for [fitness and nutrition], and the Google Authorship and Author Rank community move from page 4 to #1 on page 1 for [authorship and author rank].
The fitness community has since dropped down (although it remains #1 for [fitness and nutrition community]), while the Authorship community retains its #1 ranking at the time of this publication. I attribute the staying power of the latter community to the fact that it now has 320 external links from 41 domains pointing at it.
Those experiences made me want to test further to try to confirm my hypothesis that external links help determine the PageRank authority of Google+ profiles, pages, and communities. So I launched a new, more extensive study.
Google+ PageRank External Link Study
I decided to examine a range of profiles and pages at all levels of PageRank to see if there were any correlation between the strength of their external link profiles and their PageRank. I am heavily indebted to Paul Shapiro, who volunteered to collect the necessary data.
Some necessary background before we get to the results:
- Toolbar PageRank has not been updated since February of 2013.
- Our profile backlink data were collected in June 2013.
- We are assuming that PageRank of the study set of profiles would not have changed significantly enough from February to June to throw off the results.
- For backlink data, we used MajesticSEO, one of the few backlink tools that tracks Google+ profiles and pages.
- We eliminated profiles or pages that had few or no backlinks, since those profiles would have earned their PageRank entirely from internal Google+ links, and we were testing for external link influence.
The distribution of our sample group of profiles and pages is probably a fair approximation of the average PageRank distribution across all active Google+ accounts. When looking at the PR of profiles, we find that most which have been active for a while fall into the 2 to 4 range, and very few profiles have a PR of 6 or higher. We have found only one (Google’s own page) that has an 8, and none higher than that.
Here is the distribution of our sample group:
PageRank Vs. Citation Flow
We first extracted the MajesticSEO Citation Flow for each of the sample profiles. Citation Flow is defined by MajesticSEO as “a number of predicting how influential a URL might be based on how many sites link to it.” The chart below plots the average Citation Flow of our sample group over against their PageRank scores. Citation Flow rank is on the left, and PageRank is at the bottom:
As you can see, citation flow seems to graph as we would expect if profile/page PageRank is indeed influenced by external links. The more sites linking to a profile, the higher its PageRank.
What about Trust Flow? MajesticSEO Trust Flow is “a number predicting how trustworthy a page is based on how trustworthy sites tend to link to trustworthy neighbors.” In other words, this metric attempts to gauge the value of the links pointing toward (in this case) a profile. A higher Trust Flow number indicates that the links pointing to the profile are mostly of the sort that a search engine would be more inclined to trust, and thus give more weight.
Here is how Trust Flow compared to PageRank in our sample group:
The curve is a bit bumpier, but still overall conforms to the expectations of our hypothesis. In general, the higher the trust level of the backlinks to a profile, the higher its PageRank.
Here are the two metrics, Citation Flow and Trust Flow, combined for comparison:
The curves seem to confirm our hypothesis: the strength of external backlinks to a Google+ profile or page has an effect on the profile’s or page’s PageRank, and thus, on its ability to rank for its content, both within Google+ and in Google Search.
Profile PageRank & Google Authorship
It occurred to me that if my hypothesis about external backlinks was correct, then using Google Authorship should also have an effect on profile PageRank. Why? Because establishing Authorship for a piece of content, in most cases, involves placing a link from that content back to the author’s Google+ profile. It would seem to follow then, that profile owners who regularly create content on a diversity of sites using Google Authorship ought to have, on average, higher PageRank authority than those who do not.
To test this, I selected a sample of 60 active profiles, 30 that actively use Authorship, posting regularly on a variety of sites, and 30 that don’t (as far as I can tell). Other than that criteria, the profiles were selected randomly, without looking at their PageRank in advance. The graph below shows the results for both median and average PageRank for both sets of profiles:
While I would hesitate to call this study conclusive, at least for this test sample, on the average, profiles that use Google Authorship have about a full level of PageRank higher than those that do not. Once again, this is what we would expect to see if external links have an effect on the authority of Google+ profiles.
When Google set out to build Google+, the social network that they planned to make the “social layer” tying together all things Google, it’s not surprising that they baked into it some of their existing technology and expertise.
Their intention was that over time, Google+ pages and profiles would play an important role in helping to determine what should have more importance in various Google properties, and none are more important than Search. So Google gave profiles and pages (and now communities) the ability to have authority rankings in ways very similar to how Google evaluates “regular” sites and Web pages.
This means that Google+ profiles and pages build authority with Google by means not intuitive to most social media experts and analysts (which is why I believe so many of them have totally missed this).
What counts most is not necessarily how many followers or low-level social signals (e.g., +1′s) one’s profile has. Rather, Google takes a much more sophisticated and nuanced look at the links and relationships between various entities and a profile.
As I have demonstrated here, those entities can be both internal to Google+ (strong relational linkages from other profiles and/or pages) and external (strong backlink profiles from regular websites).
Increasing Visibility & Influence In Google Search
That means that anyone who wants to make use of Google+ as part of an overall strategy of increasing visibility and influence in Google Search should be actively pursuing all of the following tactics:
- Build a strong network within Google+. You should seek to cultivate not just a large number of followers, but more importantly, active relationships and partnerships with influential Google+ users. Their citations to your profile have a powerful effect on its authority to Google.
- Cultivate quality links from trusted websites. Create the kind of presence on Google+ that site owners want to recommend and link to. When being interviewed or referenced by a site, ask if they would link to your Google+ profile or page for identity purposes.
- Use Google Authorship for your content across the Web. Although this tip applies only to personal profiles, since Google Authorship involves a legitimate, Google-approved link to our profile, the more quality content you produce on trusted sites, the more authority given to your profile.