A couple days ago, Brooke Snow offered up Anvil Media’s “official” Search Engine Marketing predictions for 2011. After watching folks around the office go nuts rating their favorite places on Google Hotpot, talking to more than one client about the importance of online reviews to their local SEO efforts, and of course reading how Facebook and Twitter are already exerting influence in SERPs, I have an unofficial prediction of my own to add:
2011 will see the first major dust-up over social media or online reviews being used to game the search engine rankings.
Google and Bing have gotten pretty darn good at spotting the original search engine spam — inflating your inbound link profile with paid links, microsites, and so on — to the point that things have been a little quiet lately on that front in the SEO world. And by all accounts, the engines are already good at spotting the fool who submits 50 glowing reviews of his own business on the same day from the same IP.
But, some ambitious company or agency is going to find a more subtle way to systematically manipulate the new variables of online reviews and social media. They’ll incentivize customers for positive reviews on a grand scale. Or they’ll develop a technique to artificially inflate Facebook/Twitter activity in just the right way to really make a dent in search results.
And, pretty soon after that, they’ll probably get caught, the next SEO arms race will be underway, and we’ll all have something to gossip about at the next search conference.
One last note: I do think that there’s something interesting about the fact that Google & Bing will be factoring in Facebook/Twitter activity — independent entities over which they have no control, and are even competitive with. It feels somehow different than a link-based algorithm, in which the engines factored in activity across the whole of the Web. But, I haven’t quite got my head wrapped around how that might play out…is there a chance Mark Zuckerberg would just sit back and smile if someone used Facebook to undermine Google’s search quality?