Are Search Engines Using ClickStream Data

Recently there was a big kerfuffle over Bing copying Google results, Bing denying it, the Google FUD machine in full force, and some nice conspiracy theory about who is pulling the strings and why. While this makes for some exciting drama and fun twitter banter, there is some actionable information for SEO’s: paying attention to and using clickstream data.

According to the Bing response they are 100% using click stream data from sources such as IE toolbars and factoring that data into their ranking algorithms. In fact, that click stream data is at the heart of Google’s accusation that Bing is copying them. What REALLY happened is that Google engineers set up some fake SERP’s for made up words and made sure Bing got the data by sending clicks to Bing. While it’s technically not the clickfraud that Bing frames it as (since PPC wasn’t involved), it was artificial data, convincing enough that Bing believed 10% of it.

In my opinion the days of being able to ignore or dismiss social as a fad or not a part of SEO are over…

The real question you need to be asking yourself is, does Google use click stream data as part of their ranking algo? If you set the wayback machine to 2002, GoogleGuy (aka Matt Cutts) felt using Toolbar data could help provide better SERPs (hat tip MattMcGee). To the best of my Knowledge at the time this post was written, Google hasn’t disclosed if toolbar clickstream data is or is not used in ranking data (if Matt Cutts or any other rep wants to comment or drop me a link to an official comment, I’ll append this post). That said, in my testing I have seen a lot of evidence pointing to toolbar click stream data being used–at least on a short term basis. Pages with a lot of social proof (aka tweets, stumbles, reddits, etc) will pop into SERP’s for extremely competitive terms and then fade away when the clickstream data stops.

In my opinion the days of being able to ignore or dismiss social as a fad or not a part of SEO are over. Any serious SEO should also have a social component as part of their strategy, unless it’s a strictly B2B play or something “unsocial” like a funeral home.

So what are the takeaways from this post:

  • Bing is using clickthrough data as part of their ranking methodology; it’s likely Google is as well
  • Look for ways to get your URL into the data stream of toolbar users
  • Social websites like twitter provide an easy way to spoon feed data to search engines
  • Clickstream data isn’t a leading factor in the ranking and probably never will be, but it is part of the equation

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