Is Google Rewarding People Who “Buy” Friends?

Last week, Google did something that made me question everything I thought I knew about social media.

It started with a conversation I had with a friend…

My Friend: I’m thinking about hiring a company that buys Facebook “likes” for brands. What’s your opinion on that?

Me: !?

I reminded him that the real value of a “like” depends entirely on who is doing the liking. Buying Facebook “likes” is an awful lot like buying a huge email list. Go ahead and spam the list, but you’ll be lucky to get a 1% conversion rate that way. On the other hand, if you build up your own list of opt-in, permission-based fans, you might get a conversion rate of 30% or more.

As Chris Brogan wrote about social media success, “The goal is that you’re using the tools to better connect with people.”

We don’t advise our clients to buy “likes.” It’s SO much better to earn them. The whole point of having a following on social media is to gain credibility and build up trust and likability. You do that by participating, by conversing. By being a human being. You don’t do that by artificially inflating “like” numbers. That leads your boss to question the ROI of social media.

Or to engage in black hat approaches.

Remember – twenty active, loyal, and dedicated customers are more useful than the names of 200 complete strangers. Quality over quantity.

And then, last week, I read a blog post about Google, written by Christopher Penn, Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at Blue Sky Factory, that made me wonder if it was time to rethink my entire approach to social media.

Christopher blogged that Google’s search results are becoming highly influenced by your social connections. In other words, if you would be so kind as to retweet this blog post, it will become so much more likely to show up in the search results of the people who follow you!

Go ahead and retweet this post. I’ll wait.


Now then, why is this such a potential game-changer for how the Internet works?

First off, it means that no two people will see the same results on page one. That’s a pretty huge change for the SEO industry, no? What will those poor SEO companies who promise everybody and anybody “Page 1 Results, Guaranteed!” do?

Here is an example of the results I get when I Google “follow brand facebook” (without quotes) when I’m logged into Google.

The 3rd and 4th results for “follow brand facebook” display because they were shared by two people I follow on social networks (myself and Justin Kownacki.)


And here is the same query when I’m not logged in.


Here is the same search query when I’m not logged into Google (and thus Google has no idea who I am.) Note that I get different results.


But Chris pointed out a few other implications. First, the bigger your social network, the more influence you’ll have over search results.

Let that sink in for a moment.

This seems to gives a huge boost to the quantity of social friends over their quality. As Chris wrote, “If you’re marketing something, there’s now a direct incentive to build your network as large as possible among your prospective customers. Size matters.”

But here’s the thing. It’s still better for your company to have 1,000 fans on Facebook who engage with you, “like” you, and share your content than it is to have 100,000 fans who ignore you. After all, Google doesn’t care how many “likes” you have. It only cares if those people are sharing your content.

In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Google, down the line, considers it a negative indicator for search results if a particular piece of content has a ton of social connections (potential sharing) but little to no ACTUAL sharing. Facebook already does something along these lines.

Buying “likes” or any other kind of perceived social media influence is fleeting. As John Haydon wrote, “It’s like becoming a vegetarian for one month because PETA offered you free groceries.”

It’s a shortsighted strategy, practiced by those who care more about raw follower numbers than actual engagement.

What do you think? Does it ever make sense to buy social attention?

  • Christopher S. Penn

    This will likely iterate as time goes on, much in the same way that all new things and algorithms do. We’ll change and adapt them to improve quality.

    That said… there’s a lot to be said for being a first mover, for being there first, because in many cases, first movers are grandfathered into algorithms, or worse, algorithms are written assuming that what first movers have done is “right”.

    So for now? Quantity in a targeted, focused demographic is greater than quality, and if you do your job right and provide value, quality will tend to itself.

  • Scott Paley

    Thanks Chris.

  • SEO Expert

    i had a a page on facebook where i got likes from twiends in 3 days around  500+ but now what i feel is they are worthless because all of them are fake likes who do not have to do any thing with the subject of my page so buying facebook likes is a worthless job until people of same interest like it : ) but i also heard that in future these likes or tweets will also give a impact on Google am not sure about it but i have heard that this algorithm change will get happen : /

  • used auger trucks

    I’ve been hearing more and more about this recently. What about 2nd tier social media (Myspace, delicious, maybe even YouTube)? Also, these metrics for Google are only Facebook pages, not profiles. I think that’s something worth pointing out to businesses that have facebook profiles that haven’t been converted to pages yet.

  • Scott Paley

    Google is definitely using Twitter, Google Reader, Quora, and other social media sites as well. I’d guess that whatever is being used now, it will only grow in the future.

  • Lewis Poretz

    I believe one of the metrics klout, peerindex and others use is percent of engagement of followers. It’s pretty easy to increase number of followers with tools that are available. I am with you, if the percent of engagement falls under a certain percentage, it should count negative in google searches. Bot farmers- you hear this?

  • Scott Paley

    My guess is (and this is just a guess) that Google isn’t *yet* punishing for low engagement percentage, but if they’re not, it’s likely coming. It just makes too much sense.

    The real power here is exponential. Sure, I might be connected to 10,000 people who might see things I share, but if THEY don’t also share my content, then the 1,000,000 additional people that they are connected to WON’T see any of it (or at least won’t get any social sharing boost.)

    Thanks for sharing Lewis!

  • Ian M Rountree

    Important here; “punishing” is a misnomer. Google has an additive approach. A page/site/person almost never ends up with a negative score, unless they’re removed from the index – however, someone else acquiring 30 “points” on whatever scale to your 25 “points” on the same scale means they rank higher.

    Thinking in terms of punitive measures can be rather distracting.

  • Scott Paley

    Fair enough, and I didn’t mean to literally imply they were punishing anybody. Rather, as you pointed out, I really meant this in a relative sense. Of course, for any given keyword phrase (and now, for any given individual searcher), SEO is a zero-sum game, so one person’s gain is your loss…

    Thanks for the comment Ian.

  • Ian M Rountree

    That comment was way more perfunctory than intended, sorry if it sounded sharp. :)

    Yes – to an extend SEO is zero-sum on its own. That’s one of it’s appeals, lately; you’re either succeeding or you’re not. The effectiveness funnel is only as long as the time between your check on rankings.

    Unfortunately, it feels like (given discussion on a number of blogs) a lot of SEOs are giving social media advice without considering whether or not it’s in their wheelhouse.

  • Scott Paley

    No worries!

    As for your last point, well, that sort of goes without saying, no? Let’s say you’re an SEO and you’ve built up a nice practice. You’ve done well for years with helping your clients properly structure their sites, keyword research, link building, etc. You’re not black hat at all. Like everyone else, you do spend some time on Facebook and maybe Twitter. So, it’s not like you know NOTHING about them. Now, Google makes it so that SEO’s without any social marketing experience are at a significant disadvantage.

    What would *you* do?

  • Scott Paley

    And I see that your company does both, so from that perspective you should be nicely positioned for the new reality.

  • @DivaKatrina

    Wow, I can’t wait to see how this evolves. One thing I do like is the implications this has on black hat SEO companies. It’ll be hard to cheat this algorithm. I also like how this will make us marketers work that much harder to create not just keyword-rich content, but meaningful content worth sharing – because there is a difference.

  • AK Stout

    While you mentioned it at the beginning, I think it’s important to emphasize that you are referring to buying ‘Likes’ from companies who will sell you ‘Likes’ from either a database of fake accounts and/or random people w/no interest in your brand/product and that you are not referring to Facebook Ads. I only mention this because I’ve found that with the ability to target FB users by interests, geo location, etc – it can be a very effective way to garner new ‘Likes’ from people who could potentially convert into customers.

  • Scott Paley

    Yes, you are correct. I wasn’t really talking about FB ads — that’s a different animal. I’m certainly not suggesting that brands shouldn’t try to grow their fan base — just that the important word there is “fan”.

  • Scott Paley

    Do you think the role of a SEO will need to expand now, to content creator and social media consultant? Or will dedicated SEOs go the way of the dodo?

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  • Payton_vege

    Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

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