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Google+ help: circles vs communities

by Katinka Hesselink on February 15, 2014

Google+ is the upcoming social network according to industry stats. Google+ shares are directly correlated to high search rankings. This may mean that shares actually help stuff rank (which I doubt) or it can mean that stuff which ranks, tends to be shared (which seems likely). For that reason I think it’s time to revisit Google+ and see how it fits into my online strategy.

Over the years I’ve occasionally been active there and the result is that I have over 1000 people following me right now. Pretty amazing for a network I haven’t been active in. There are two ways to share posts with specific groups within Google+. The first is ‘circles’ the second ‘communities’. For a newby the two can be confusing. Here’s a quick summary I gave on the topic on facebook:

The circles are the way in which we can organize public shares – the google+ communities are like facebook groups: people can join them and they can be private or public or whatever. Circles are your private way of organizing that feed, so you can actually find the posts by your friends among the link-drops you’d rather not see. I have a ‘noisy’ circle for instance, for people I know, but whose posts I don’t need to see, because there are just too many of them.

So, if you want a share to only go to your friends who like baseball, you create a ‘baseball’ circle. If you want to FIND people to discuss baseball with and ask them a question or discuss the latest game, you join a baseball community. Communities on Google+ can be really fun. They’re a place where real discussion takes place. You can join communities around all your interests and find interesting people there. You can also decide whether or not you want the discussions in those groups to show up on your general Google+ feed. In most cases I’ve chosen not to have them there, because there are just too many things going to my Google+ feed anyhow.

However, it’s up to you. Google+ is a bit weird. On the one hand everybody who has a Google profile (Gmail users for instance) automatically has a Google+ account. So many users aren’t actually users. They just have an account because Google forced them to create one. The service is also a bit complicated.

However, it does solve some of the issues that are cropping up on facebook. One is privacy – Google+ circles make it very clear to whom your post is visible and you get to make that choice with everything you share. So some things can be public, others will only go to the people you have in circles (aka follow) and some will go to specific groups of people.

For general usage the main issue with Google+ is likely to be that it just has too many options. However, since the use of Google+ is apparently on the rise, perhaps people are learning to deal with that. Or they are finding simplified ways of using it that don’t use many of the customization options the system has.

In terms of privacy management Google+ is definitely a step up from Facebook: the default is to decide on a post-by-post basis what goes to which circle. Sure, the system remembers your last setting and uses that as a default, but changing that is not only easy, but a prominent interface option. To share something to a community you have to actually go to that community page. 

On Facebook I’ve recently seen people ask about duplicate content on WordPress blogs. People are panicking. It’s logical to panic, unfortunately, because Google has been acting strangely lately. However, no-indexing ALL your tag and category pages is a mistake. You do want normal links between pages of your site. You do want Google to FIND your older posts. 

So here’s my recipe:

  1. Pick one way of categorizing your posts that’s most important: tags or categories. 
  2. Make sure this one is visible to users and search engines. In 9 cases out of 10 you do NOT need both.
    Having categories (usually your best pick) visible to search engines means that not only are all your posts visible to Google – as it crawls the category pages – you have the added advantage of on topic pages your users may particularly like. And – as a bonus – if you have a theme like Thesis you can add unique content on top of these category pages (explaining the category, for instance) to make these pages more attractive to search engines. 
  3. No-index and Follow the date based archives (never useful) and the tags/category system you’re not using. In many cases you also want the Author archives to be invisible to search engines. The easiest way to do this is using Yoast’s SEO plugin
    You do want to ‘Follow’ all links, btw, because that way when someone links to one of these pages, at least the pages it links to will get seen. 
  4. Have one big sitemap for your whole blog. Like this 
    That way you’re sure all your posts and pages are visible for Google and have top access to whatever pagerank your homepage has. Unfortunately I use a custom version of an old plugin that’s no longer being developed on this blog, so I can’t help you actually DO this. On some blogs I simply go with Simple Yearly Archive
  5. Use some plugin to interlink related posts. Right now I prefer nrelate.
    This is another way to make sure Google knows what your site is about and get individual posts to rank. 

Now here’s my explanation

I understand worrying, as I said. However, that doesn’t mean we have to avoid the most basic common sense approaches to website  building and WordPress blogging. Google has given us some very clear guidelines about how they want us to build websites. Here are a few:

Build for visitors first. Show visitors and search engines the same thing.

This means that if you have useful categories and tags, do show them to your users and do show them to search engines as well. If in doubt: make them MORE useful. (See the bonus with point 2 above). 

Links are the fabric on which the web is built.

The only links you have legitimate control over these days are the links WITHIN your website. Hiding tags and categories from search engines means that you’re saying to Google: don’t trust my site. In effect you’ll be linking from your homepage ONLY to the pages/posts visible on your homepage. That means only your last 10 posts and whatever posts and pages you have listed in your menu. The rest will be INVISIBLE to Google. NOT a good idea. 

So how about duplicate content?

Let GOOGLE worry about that. Seriously. Yes, the snippets from your posts will show up on your category and tag pages. As long as your posts are generally longer than that, the original post is still likely to be seen and indexed by Google. After all, the category and tag pages LINK to that original post. 

So how about duplicate content?

Still worried about that? Well, with tag pages there is some reason to worry. If you have posts about gadgets and they’re all tagged both ‘gadget’ and ‘electronics’ the tag pages for ‘gadget’ and ‘electronics’ are going to be pretty much the same. Assuming Google sees that – and was going to rank one or the other TAG PAGE for something – it would be a problem for them to be identical. You’re splitting pagerank between the two TAG PAGES which makes it less likely either is going to be seen by search engine users. This is a problem with your tagging. Most people tag very inexpertly anyhow (which is part of why I recommend most people to use categories instead) and yes, if you tag like that, you probably need to hide your tag pages from Google. 

So I should really NOT hide all my tags/ categories etc. from Google?

Really. You should at least have EITHER your tags OR your Categories visible to Google. Google can figure it out. Most (genuine) blogs online don’t worry about this stuff. Out of ignorance. A few are still getting bucketloads of traffic from Google or wherever. And yes, we do have Matt Cutts’ word on this. He notes that 25% of the web is duplicate content. And that’s normal. More from Matt on this issue: rel=canonical and duplicate content won’t hurt you, unless it’s spammy.

Post Script: what about the date archives?

Well, I did say in a byline above that you should hide them from Google and Users. Honestly, I forgot about them. The first thing I do when setting up any WordPress site is deleting the date-based-archive widget. Unless your blog is purely personal, I don’t think organizing by date is EVER as useful to readers as by organizing by topic. I mean, who – except perhaps my mom – would be interested to know what I wrote in August 2013? You’re interested to know what I wrote about Squidoo, or WordPress or SEO recently. If you have any readers at all, they’re interested in your topic. Even the New York Times organizes by topic first, date later. And WordPress is organized by date by default anyhow, you don’t need specific date-based archives. So hide them from users and search engines. And that means no-index / follow. 

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