Bing: Social matters – prioritise users

Bing might only have a 4% worldwide marketshare according to the data at Hitslink, but it’s growing fast – up 20% since this time last year, and once the search alliance rolls out worldwide, Bing’s algorithm will be providing the answers to around 10% of all queries.  That makes it pretty important.

there was a fascinating interview between Eric Enge and Duane Foster published on Stone Temple Consulting on Wednesday that discussed in detail some of the factors that Bing use in determining relevance and ranking results.  the headline picked up in Search Engine Roundtable’s take on the interview was that Bing were talking about social media being more important than links.

This shouldn’t be a big surprise for anyone working in SEO.  Search engines attempt to approximate relevance algorithmically, mimicking user behaviour as much as possible to ensure that people see what they want.  There are a few links in this post, but on the whole, the way people share content with each other now is very different to the way it was done 5 years ago.  People don’t create home pages of their favourite links any more, businesses rarely include a reciprocal links page as an afterthought on their corporate site, and almost no-one I can think of actually uses directories to find websites.

People share via Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.  In my Twitter feed at the moment, the top 20 posts have 10 links between them, in Facebook, my feed has 5 links in the first 20 posts.  Aside from this blog, I don’t remember the last time I physically added a link to a website.    That has a big impact on the link economy.  It’s probably not a massive stretch to suggest that a significant proportion of hard coded external links added to websites in the last 12 months have been placed there solely for SEO benefit.  If Bing (or Google for that matter) want sites to rank based on genuine user interaction, and value brand reach over SEO activity, it makes sense that  hard links should be downgraded or disregarded.

Are Links Dead Then?

Clearly not.  Bing still rate them as the third most important factor in ranking websites, although 12 months ago, we’d have said that they were the most important.  Google’s PageRank algorithm uses links as a fundamental metric.  Search engines might be allocating less weight to them now than they did in the past, but that’s not to say that their value is gone.

What Social Media Matters?

For some people, social media begins and ends with Facebook.  That’s patently wrong.  Social is communication, the media is just where it happens, forums, blogs, bookmarking services are all social media, but there’s far more to it than that.  True social signals as interpreted by search engines are all about the idea of users and their online behaviour.  In the interview with Duane Forrester, one thing is clear – that Bing are not just using the number of shares, they are considering all aspects of user interaction:

We are watching the user’s behavior to understand which result we showed them seemed to be the most relevant in their opinion, and their opinion is voiced by their action.

What Duane is saying here, and what he said in the previous paragraph was that Bing are actively monitoring their SERP to measure user interaction, and they’re looking at metrics like CTR, Bounce Rate, length of session, and more.  Every piece of feedback they can get about your website is being fed back into the algorithm in real time, and being factored into the order of the results.

If your website elicits a better response from visitors than your competitors in the SERP, then you will be rewarded, if negative, you will be penalised with a lower ranking.

Bing need to gain marketshare, and they need to do it fast, positioning themselves as a search provider that delivers the best quality results for users will help them to achieve this.

Yeah, But it’s Only 4% Remember

Quite right.  Only 4%, and it was only 3.3% last year, and only 2.5% the year before that.  And even though it’s hard baked into ie9 and Windows Mobile 7, and the Windows 8 experience, it’s likely that the biggest search term that it will ever provide results for is “Google”.

And Google are Doing the Same

because ultimately, Google are involved in exactly the same struggle to provide users with the best possible experience, and the best possible results.  Google are looking beyond the link economy to determine what is relevant to users now.  Their cookie personalises your search results based on your behaviour and that of the people around you.  Their analytics code aggregates data about user engagement with websites and feeds it back into the central data that is used for ranking (check the T&Cs) they track you through Chrome, through Android, and through the toolbar.  Google claim to use more than 9,000 factors in determining the order of their results, and once you’ve exhausted the number of factors that can be relate to the number of times you’ve used a particular keyword with reference to a particular page, you face the realisation that users matter.