One of the most important ways for blogs to get good traction in search used to come from links on other highly linked blogs and Web sites. The exchange of links from blog to blog created “link love,” which then helped to increase a blog’s Google PageRank. Along with keywords, PageRank could significantly boost a blog’s position in search, sometimes putting that blog higher in results than a major news site. Even when bloggers linked to newspaper sites, news sites didn’t always see those links as beneficial to them.
Now, a new kind of link love, associated with real-time search and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, might be the kind that news organizations seek to embrace.
In December, Google announced that it would offer real-time search results that are seconds old, rather than the usual ones that are updated every 15 to 20 minutes. News headlines, blogs, tweets and feeds from the most popular social networking sites would now be part of a true, real-time search. This signals the first time that any search engine has been able to integrate real-time search results into its regular search results.
“Information is being created at a pace I have never seen before — and in this environment, seconds matter,” said Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow, at December’s announcement. “I cannot emphasize enough: Relevance is the foundation of this product. It is relevance, relevance, relevance. There is so much info being generated out there, getting you relevant information is the key to success of a product like this.”
Keeping its search results relevant is one of Google’s biggest concerns. Both Google and Bing have deals with Twitter to get real-time access to tweets, but Google claims supremacy in real-time search by including Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites in its results. Google’s Twitter deal, the details of which have not been disclosed, may also aid in its development of new search features for mobile and improved geographic search, which were also revealed at the December event.
It’s not easy to determine relevance in the Twittersphere, which is often viewed as a cacophony of noise that makes it hard to find the signal. Google has developed a way to determine search relevance by ranking tweets with a method similar in some ways to PageRank. Singhal, who led the development of real-time search, explained that the key to understanding relevance in Twitter is to identify “reputed followers.” He told Technology Review, “You earn reputation and then you give reputation. If lots of people follow you, and then you follow someone — then even though this [new person] does not have lots of followers,” that person’s tweet is valuable because his or her followers are followed by a wider group.
One user following another in a social networking site is analogous to one blogger (and Web site) linking to another. As links from high-ranking bloggers and sites gave “link love” to unknowns, well-established, popular Twitter users lend reputation to the users they follow.
Social ranking based on popularity is not the only way that Google is making sense of, and determining the value of, tweets. Google also has taken into consideration the use of hashtags (#), by which users note that their tweet relates to a particular topic (often a trending topic). While hashtags can help anyone keep up with the latest on a particular topic, they also can attract spam tweets, which lower the value of the hashtag. Google, however, has modeled hashtag behavior in a way that filters spam — again, cutting out the noise. Hashtags may be one of the ways that Google will be able to focus real-time search on geographic regions.
Now that real-time links are included with standard Web search, it’s more important for bloggers, marketers, and yes, news organizations, to use social networking sites to spread information via shared links. If a news organization is concerned about stolen content, social networking should be more acceptable considering the means of dissemination are limited to 140 characters.
Here are my suggestions for how news sites can make the most of real-time search and share in the new link love:
- Have a presence on social networking sites. This is best leveraged if the presence is connected with an individual — whether the person is a reporter or someone else doesn’t matter, as long as it is a person. Spreading news in the social realm works best when done person to person.
- Create a branded URL shortener and make it easy to find and use. This will save readers from going to another shortener service, and it ensures link integrity. If creating a shortener is too costly, think of using the professional version of bit.ly, which gives statistics on each shortened URL.
- Create simple tutorials to tell users how to share your content on social networking sites. Explain how hashtags can be used to specify a subject or geographic region.
- Track click-through traffic from social networking sites to see which are most active for your region, and focus efforts there. This may be helpful when geographic location becomes a larger part of real-time search.
- Monitor activity on social networking sites. This makes it easier to see which stories are important to readers, especially during major breaking news. This will be most helpful to news sites that automatically cache content behind a pay wall after a short time. Maintaining open access to major stories, as the public is actively sharing links, shows a strong commitment to the community and can foster loyalty.