Post-Panda, are we seeing social spam in the SERPs?

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It is now a year since the first Panda update was rolled out and many sites have seen some alterations to the rankings as a result; for some, negative but for many others the Panda update provided a wake up call to update and add unique, quality content which has invariably improved ranking results post-Panda. There does also seem to have been the required cull of content farms and scrapers that were beginning to litter the SERPS and cost Google the reputation for relevance that it has built up over the years. However, in its wake comes the Search Plus Your World integration which many view as a less than positive advance.

Whilst it may seem logical for Google to integrate search with many of the other Google properties (G+, maps, etc) and personalise the results according to search history, known likes/dislikes, the social signals generated by others within your social network, and so on, the resultant SERPs when you are logged into your Google account are not to the liking of many.

For instance, a search may pull up discussion, opinion and social networking profiles rather than the original content, and there is an ongoing debate in the blogosphere about whether these 'secondary' layers of information are actually as relevant as the current emphasis on social signals in the SERPs would make out. After all, much of the commentary on a piece is often not as well researched or knowledgeable as the genuine article or the original information, particularly when the searcher is in 'research mode' rather than, say, shopping mode where reviews of products etc are of some value in the decision making process. It is this drop in the perceived quality of the returned results that appears to be taxing many in the SEO/SEM and search world.

One could also wonder whether it is forcing often reluctant businesses into the world of social at a time when resources to handle such an addition to any marketing campaign are often in short supply and there is only one thing worse than not doing social media marketing, and that is doing it badly. For the unknowledgeable, social media marketing can be a minefield, and even for those in the know, it is all too simple to make a PR faux pas in a mere 140 characters, or less. There are always going to be companies for whom social media is not a prerequisite to doing good business, but looking at the SERPs recently, it has become increasingly difficult to visualise that scenario as the social results start to take up more and more space, and Google becomes much more of a suggestion engine than a search engine.

There is a definite time and place for social results in the SERPS, but it is still difficult to see where a link to a G+ profile where a discussion is taking place about a link to an article or infographic elsewhere should take precedence over the original item. Social is where the buzz is at present, but should social results be included when you are logged in to the detriment of other, possibly more pertinent, results?

The personalisation of results is also causing problems for some in understanding their ranking from others' point of view. For instance, if you regularly visit your own site whilst logged in to Google, this will automatically bump it up the SERPs for you. Ditto if you have an active social circle, whose own searches, likes, +1s etc will affect what results appear for you. However, someone who has never visited your site and has a different social circle will not see the same results as you, making it hard for SMEs and businesses with little understanding of the search engines to understand what their marketing budget is achieving unless they know to log out of Google (and preferably use another browser altogether to compare results).

It all comes down to quality and relevance and freshness, and yet it is hard to see how the latest changes within the Google search engine will continue to stick to these benchmarks. Are you seeing an increase in social results in your searches? How do they affect your SEO decisions? Do you feel that the results are of lower quality than previously or on other engines eg Bing and Would you prefer a social option, or a research button, or some way of indicating to Google more precisely what you are searching for? Should there be an Unlike or -1 button for Google results to show them how many were not relevant, fresh or of good quality? We'd be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.......

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