Annoying as this may be to retail SEO specialists, it's just the start. Does anyone really expect that Google won't take this further—and that your traditional SEO and social media teams aren't about to collide?
The new injection of social into Google search will initially only affect results for users who are logged into Google when they search. Related results from within their Google+ circles will get top priority on the results pages, which should mean those top spots that SEO mavens crave will now be out of reach. Those top results will be based on what a potential customer's online acquaintances are saying, not on any SEO tweaks to the site itself.
For example, if a user is searching for "refrigerator," no SEO adjustment will push Sears or Best Buy (the current top results) ahead of any refrigerator-related chatter within a Google+ user's circle. That's an effect that will hit every retailer who sells refrigerators equally.
But if those Google+ acquaintances happen to mention that they've been shopping for refrigerators at Lowe's and Home Depot, those retailers' names, at least, could be pushed to the top of the search results that user sees. The retailers who benefit from that effect are the ones who have lots of buzz—positive or negative.
This doesn't mean traditional SEO has suddenly become irrelevant. Lots of Google users won't be signed in while they're searching, so the old SEO rules still apply.
But for signed-in Google users, there's no way traditional SEO can have an impact on the new social results. Besides, building buzz on Google+ is the job of a retailer's social media team—right?
Except it's not just social media now. With Google determined to make Google+ connections the top search results, your SEO team suddenly needs to become best friends with your social media group. And your social media people need to start thinking explicitly about encouraging chatter that will promote your brand to a higher position in search results.
(Related story: "Want To Push Social Media? Have You Considered Using Your Stores?")
Traditional SEO still matters. But on Google, social SEO will increasingly matter, too. Exactly how much retraining of your social media team that will require—and whether you'll simply need to beef up your social team—is one decision you'll face.
Another issue is metrics—specifically, the fact that they'll be hard to come by in this new search world, because every Google+ user's search results will be different. Traditional SEO results only change when Google changes its rules (which, let's face it, Google does on a regular basis). But at least the results of SEO tweaking have been consistent between Google ranking-rule changes.
In the new Google world, with users' top results dictated by what's going on in their Google+ circles, metrics get much less stable. Every users' search results will be different, at least if they're Google+ members and haven't turned off the new social-search features.
And that's just how it works now. What will happen if (or more likely when) Google begins to use those social-search results to modify how the rest of the search results appear? If a Google+ user's circles are all buzzing about a particular apparel chain, it makes sense for Google to eventually start using that as a factor in ranking all search results for that user.
At that point, the social-media impact won't just be at the top of the results page. It could completely reorder those results. When that happens, you'll still need both traditional SEO and social teams. But the line between the results they produce will have been obliterated.