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Last year, Google launched an integration of its own social network – Google+ --- with the integration of its search engine, Search Plus Your World.

The combination of both search function and social networking promised to create major marketing shortcuts and allow business owners to tailor those search results for the public. The push was widely considered a bold, innovative attempt at user-specific search results, and a push which had the potential to be a huge, public failure. It's one year later – how has Search Plus Your World done so far? Is it a marketing tool worth your firm's time and effort?

Social Media's Big Dogs

The bar was set by Facebook – with an estimated one billion users each month as of October, 2012, it would take a huge leap of innovation and creativity for Google to successfully challenge their market holding. But Google's unparalleled access to individuals via the Gmail platform and their ubiquitous search page positioning has allowed Google to do something Facebook has not (yet) been able to do. In a world where the ranking on a search engine – the search engine – can make or break a business, Google has worked to connect social and search in a unique way.

When Google first launched Google+, there were skeptics who wondered what could be the benefit of yet another social network, when Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn already covered so many markets. But by combing the profile information from Google+ members with search engine availability, search results have become personalized. Google+ currently has approximately 500M users. While that is only half of the users claimed by Facebook, Google+ built up its ranks in 18 months. For Facebook to reach its one billion users, it took almost six years. So, yes, we'd say Google+ is seems to be an experiment gone right.

Now What?

What does the apparent success of Search Plus Your World mean to your firm? To be successful in your marketing campaigns, social media engagement is no longer a choice. Your firm must be engaged in social marketing in order to be part of search engine optimization.

"The entire point of Search Plus Your World is to tie together the information on the Internet and found via Google's search algorithms to the knowledge that people add," says Lynette Young, author of Google+ for Small Businesses and founder of Women of Google+. "Also, to those people that correctly configure Google Authorship and regularly publish content in Google+, Google is rewarding them by putting their search results not only page one on Google Search Plus Your World, but taking out all paid advertisement on that page and displaying that person's Google profile and data. This above all else is why companies need to submit for authorship, circle people on Google+ and post public to Google+."

And, if your firm still decides to not become engaged in social media or to engage others, know this: your competition is. Smart, marketing savvy firms are cultivating their Google+ networks.

"Google Search Plus Your World has changed how websites are search-engine-ranked," agrees Jason Bland of Adviatech. "In fact, it's been a real problem for websites that did not keep up. A fair number of lawyers have seen their traffic drop over the last year because they have no activity in Google+ and therefore a smaller pool of people are seeing their site. They would have been prominently displayed to users that were connect to people connected to them, had they been part of Google+."

Google Search Plus Your World has changed the marketing game once again. Though search engine optimization (SEO) was once a stand-alone tool, and the marketing goal was to land high ranking in search engine results through keywords, that is no longer the case. While other search engines remain available (Bing, Yahoo!, etc), the majority of your clients are not using them to search for legal representation. Your clients are overwhelmingly using Google to search, so your firm needs to rank high in Google. Now that Google uses a combination of search and social, your firm must establish and maintain a strong presence on social media sites, especially Google+.

Does this mean you should connect personally with your clients on social media? Probably not. While there are some (very) rare exceptions, keep your professional and personal profile separate. Maintain professional business profiles on the major social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus), and keep them informative and useful for your clients. Your goal is twofold: you want to deepen that relationship with current clients - engage them, educate them, support them, and show that you are knowledgeable in your field. Secondly, you want to offer information that your clients find so useful or interesting that they share it with others, essentially acting as your brand ambassador. By maintaining social media connections, your firm is visible to clients, potential clients and colleagues, and you will be more likely to appear prominently within search results. And while launching and maintaining multiple social media profiles may seem a little daunting, keep in mind that you need not be the flashiest or the most verbose of profiles. In fact, what you need to focus on is what you've always needed to focus in for an effective marketing platform: staying on message, maintaining consistency, and retaining visibility by releasing content on schedule. Your social media presence will ---and must -- affect your SEO efforts.

Prepare To Launch

If you have not done so already, set up your professional Google+ pages, or instruct your marketing firm to do so. Then begin posting, sharing, and +1’ing information that is relevant. As your circles grow, you can comment on colleagues’ posts and shares. That activity will grow your Google+ network; the content attached to your Google+ profile will potentially begin to appear in your social connections’ relevant search results, and will appear within your own personal results link.

Also, use the other Google platforms. Though Google+ is the most painless way to land social search real estate, remember that Google garners personalized results for Search Plus Your World from all its platforms. Images now count, and video now counts. The days of separate websites with segregated information are over. If your firm has an event like a fundraiser, seminar or awards banquet, post an image or two to Picasa, and +1’ing the video on YouTube. All efforts will help move you into social search results. Keep in mind that also means that if you +1 a silly cat video on YouTube, that also may well show up in a connection's search. Every choice you make has the potential to ripple outward. While you do not have to be thoroughly calculated in all of your social media choices, you do have to be cautious and deliberate about what you intend to convey.

Other Things to Consider

Do you have a professional headshot? Get one. Your Google+ profile will include your image. If you have no image in your profile, the general consensus is that the lack of an image indicates a level of disinterest or even laziness, or that your profile may a spambot or otherwise not be a legitimate one. Sure, you can use your firm's logo (if you do, make sure it is crisp, clean and clear), but a headshot better personalizes your brand. And, if your profile image is a person and not a logo, you will more likely to be added to other circles. Make certain that what your clients and potential clients see is the best, most professional version of you.

To make networking even easier, Google recently added pop-up labels which identify other profiles of people in your firm as you post updates. Google+ also is designed to allow restricted information which can share only within your firms' group. As with Facebook, you are given layers of privacy. And just like Facebook, always keep in mind who you are sharing with and what you are sharing.

The Bottom Line

Using social media in such a high-profile manner can be a daunting prospect to those of us who are concerned about online privacy and about how more of an online presence can also mean more mistakes, missteps and backlash. For some, interacting in social media can seem like a version of stepping onto an endless stage and never, ever being able to pull closed the curtain. But the truth is, social media, like a stage, can be used to only feature for the audience what the performer wishes to share.

Google+ Search Plus Your World costs you nothing to use, though it will cost you in terms of time and commitment as you strategize, get your profile set up, connect to others and maintain some level of activity. But that commitment may prove to be well worth your time.

About Author

Barbara Atkinson is a former Bigger Law Magazine staff contributor and editorial board member.

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