Google is no longer just a search engine. It is adopting social signals that increasingly impact content visibility across Google surfaces like Search, News and YouTube.
This shift requires brands to rethink what it means to do SEO today and beyond.
The article explores how Google is expanding into a surface ecosystem, why followership matters for visibility, and some initial ideas for brands looking to increase followers on Google.
Google’s shifting focus: From search to discovery
In the past four years, Google has undergone fundamental shifts:
- From answers to journeys.
- From search queries to queryless search.
- From text to visuals.
Google has transformed itself from a search engine to a surface ecosystem that focuses on anticipating and satisfying users’ needs, enabling it to reach and influence people before they need to search.
Think of the number of influential surfaces beyond the traditional SERPs. Google is now a:
- Ecommerce player with Google Lens, Shopping and Buy on Google functionality.
- Business directory with Google Maps.
- Aggregator in multiple industries with Google News, Google for Jobs, and Google Travel.
- Personal assistant, especially with the upcoming integration of Bard into Google Assistant.
Yet, the key functionality with the potential to greatly impact every brand and shape future visibility across all surfaces is Google’s hidden social networking feature.
Google is a powerful social network
The Perspectives tab may highlight other social network content in search, but I doubt this is Google’s end game.
Despite the failure of Google+, I believe Google still intends to become a leading social network.
Think about it: Google already offers every feature of its social media competitors.
- Vertical video through YouTube Shorts.
- Stories on the open web.
- For You Page (FYP) with Google Discover, which treats webpages as social posts.
- Likes with the heart button in Google Discover.
- Comments with the new Notes feature in Search Labs.
- Shares through Google Chrome.
- Personalization algorithms based on topical engagement, especially with the new website visit frequency ranking feature, which feels like Google’s version of “Trusting the algorithm to bring me back.”
- Creator details such as social handle, social follower count or content popularity included in search results, and the recent avatar guidance.
- Chat, albeit to an AI, with Bard and the converse feature in SGE.
But Google’s main social weapon is Discover.
In terms of monthly active users (MAUs), YouTube’s 2.7 billion is only exceeded by Facebook’s 3 billion. And with Discover’s last MAU reporting in 2018 at 800 million, it’s likely competitive with TikTok’s 1.1 billion or Instagram’s 2.3 billion. And certainly beats X’s 528 million and LinkedIn’s 310 million.
Moreover, Discover can provide significantly more value to brands. Unlike many of its social counterparts, Discover is not an area for doom scrolling or click hoarding.
There is a limited number of posts highly personalized to each user with the primary aim of getting users to click through to read more.
This is how Discover delivers its value. This means being featured in Google Discover can be highly impactful and highly targeted.
Now, Google is promoting a way to optimize for Discover and many rich experiences with surface followership.
Google followership: The next frontier
Google has begun rolling out the Follow button in search results. This allows you to subscribe to topics with Google, adding it as an interest in your Google profile.
Doing this increases the likelihood of seeing content related to those topics in various places like Discover and search results. You may even receive push notifications from the Google app if there is relevant news.
But this is just one of many follow features available across Google surfaces.
In Google News, I can click the follow star to show in the sources box in News and Discover, in the recently redesigned Google News following tab and the “From publishers you follow” SERP feature.
In Google Shopping, I can favorite a brand, which gives more visibility to that brand’s offerings.
I can follow brands and local guides in Google Maps to receive updates on their activities in the maps following tab.
I can follow any website with the Chrome Browser follow button, which adds it to the following tab. The content of which you can influence through a compatible RSS feed.
Google mobile app
In the Google mobile app, I can follow my favorite sporting teams to get game reminders and result updates, which also impact Discover personalization.
Knowledge Panel on SERPs
Or I can follow an entity by clicking the bell on its Knowledge Panel in Google Search to add it as a topic of interest, similarly influencing Discover and other surfaces.
Clearly, Google needs to consolidate. Yet, it’s evident that the company is heavily investing in encouraging users to follow content on Google surfaces, with more developments on the way.
In Chrome flags, you can enable enhancements to the Following and the New tab page.
These enhancements spell the end of Google’s desktop homepage as we have known it for 20 years.
It won’t just be a search box on a white background anymore. It will include Discover and other cards like its mobile counterpart, becoming a space for people to begin their journey through search or discovery.
To get on this Google homepage on mobile (and soon desktop), engaging your audience and growing a strong followership on Google surfaces will be key.
As Google increases followership numbers, it will potentially:
- Double down on the visibility of content from followed brands across all their surfaces.
- Use it as a more general visibility signal to support the algorithmic understanding of E-E-A-T.
Followership is a factor in many other existing social algorithms, after all.
Google recently added followership numbers as rich snippets accompanying social media profiles. What’s to stop them from displaying the domain followership numbers for your brand website?
No matter their motivation, Google is headed down the followership path. But SEO strategy is not adapting to these changes.
Why are “ranking factors” still in our vocabulary? Why is budget invested in keyword tracking tools? Traffic from Google isn’t driven primarily by blue links anymore.
The goal should not be just to rank in the SERPs. You must get your content in front of your target audience to drive engagement, which, if done well, will lead to conversions.
Do you talk about ranking in a social network like Instagram or TikTok? No. You talk about visibility. You know it’s hyper-personalized. What you publish this week matters because it impacts next week’s post reach.
It’s the same on Google. Google has finally owned up to site-level signals influencing visibility. What is in the index influences the performance of future pieces.
And just like on social media where engagement and followers boost visibility, the same goes for Google surfaces.
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How to boost followers for Google surface visibility
So, how do you drive up followership on the relevant surfaces for your brand? While only you can answer that for your audience, here are some ideas for inspiration.
1. Add a ‘Follow Us’ button
This can lead to a Google News publication from your article pages. It’s worthwhile to test a button vs. a banner or a combination of the two, as is done here on Search Engine Land.
2. Write up a subtle ‘how to’ piece
If you are in a relevant space, you can create content about the new following capabilities on Google.
Informing your audience how it benefits them, with a convenient call to action showing how to try it out on you, like what 9to5Google did.
3. Cross-channel promotion
Adding posts, stories and videos on relevant social media channels, sending a push notification or adding a link in an email newsletter can all be effective ways to drive up Google followership numbers.
Don’t forget about the social power of Google surfaces. For example, Google Maps allows posting, which will show up for the brand query in the SERPs.
Optimizing for visibility beyond Google search
Google is expanding beyond just search and moving into content discovery and social media functionalities.
As a result, Google should no longer be viewed solely as a search engine but rather as an influential network of interconnecting surfaces like YouTube, Maps, News, Discover, and more.
Aside from optimizing for search traffic, brands must consider visibility and followership across Google’s ecosystem of products.
Whatever your tactics, it’s time to acknowledge the lines between search and social media are increasingly blurry. Be a first mover and optimize for followership on Google.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.