Is Google Shifting Search to be More Social?
It’s no secret that Google has struggled with launching their own social media platform in the past. Google+, the tech giant’s fourth attempt at launching a social network, was unceremoniously shut down in 2019 after almost 8 years of operation. Despite Google’s claim of over 500 million active monthly users, most would agree that platform was a ghost town from the time it launched (figures above are from Wikipedia).
With such a rough track record in the social media space it’s interesting to see Google creep back into this arena. I believe there’s three clear indicators they are trying to do so:
- Follow button
- New structured data
- Notes experiment
Google Follow Button
Google rolled out a new “Follow” button in search results in mid-November 2023. This new feature is designed to allow users to subscribe to topics that interest them which will then help Google personalize search results. This is remarkably similar to how social media companies curate content for their users based on the individuals, organizations and topics they follow and/or interact with. This will also likely improve Google’s capabilities with advertising targeting and segmenting users into affinity groups. Personalized search results aren’t new, but basing it on topics user’s opt-in to following is a very social approach to search.
New Structured Data for Forums & Profile Pages
On November 27th, 2023 Google announced support for profile page and discussion forum structured data. Admittedly this announcement was a bit of a shock to me after the recent loss of How-To & FAQ schema (see update below). This markup is designed to help Google get first-person perspective from social media, forums and other online communities directly into search (per their own documentation).
Google Notes Experiment
Last, but certainly not least is an experimental feature that is arguably the clearest indication that Alphabet (Google’s parent company) is trying to reenter the social media space. The same day that news broke about the “Follow” button, Google also announced a new search experiment in Search Labs called Notes. Notes is an experimental feature that allows users to add short posts, or notes, to search results. Notes are intended to be for reviews, comments, additional perspectives etc. as the GIFs below from Google demonstrate.
The SEO community isn’t particularly optimistic about this feature with many wondering A) how useful it will be and B) how effective Google will be at moderating notes. Barry Schwartz of SE Roundtable also points out that many OG SEOs think Google has lost its way and is adding unnecessary features offering minimal utility.
And based on my testing, there’s not many notes in search results yet (even for top websites like apple.com) and the notes that do appear are virtually useless (see image above). While I sincerely hope Google doesn’t push this feature live anytime soon, it would help them make search more social. Only time will tell, but I imagine we’ll continue to see updates like this going into 2024.
It’s worth clarifying that Google hasn’t completely ended support for How-To & FAQ schema. SEO expert Glenn Gabe observed FAQ and HowTo snippets returning to Google Search results earlier this week.
If that seems confusing, it’s because it is. Google’s documentation still shows the notice about deprecating HowTo schema and only showing FAQ snippets for “for well-known, authoritative government and health websites” from back in August.