If you’re a social scientist in search of a broader audience for your scholarship, you’ve almost certainly given thought to how social media can advertise your work and yourself. You’ve probably started with Twitter and Facebook, the heavy hitters. Maybe you’ve moved on to LinkedIn or Academia.edu, the professional profile builders.
All fine ideas. But I would suggest also giving Google+, the search giant’s much-maligned social network, a look.
As you’d probably suspect, Google+ lacks the level of user engagement and sharing activity seen on Twitter and Facebook: The platform currently accounts for only 2 percent of social shares. (By contrast, half of those shares can be traced to Facebook, 24 percent to Twitter.)
But you’re not going there for the kind of “hey, click my link” interaction seen on Twitter or Facebook. Instead, the strengths of Google+ lie in its integration with Google Search, the 800-pound gorilla currently responsible for two-thirds of U.S. Web searches.
Keep that in mind, and Google+ can help you in two ways. First, a properly formatted and publicly searchable Google+ profile helps expose your expertise to journalists searching for sources for their assigned stories. Second, a feature called Google Authorship can help your work “pop” on Google Search return pages. Here’s how to tackle both of those goals.
Optimizing your profile
While the information displayed on a Google+ profile is similar to the information shown on Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, Google+ is based on openness rather than exclusivity. Profile contents are fully indexed into Google Search, something that’s not true of Facebook. And users have the option of making the entirety of their profile content available to the public, which can’t be done on LinkedIn. This means that your profile information can be discovered, say, by journalists seeking subject-matter experts.
Setting up a Google+ account for general use is relatively straightforward, but I’d suggest a few tweaks for anyone using the platform for academic outreach. In terms of images, a clear and distinctive headshot is a good choice for a profile photo, as it gives you a head start should you decide to make use of Google Authorship. (I’ll talk more about that below.)
In terms of text, take full advantage of the fact that the information you enter on your profile will be entered into the Google Search index. Be thorough and detailed: Journalists making Web searches related to current events are looking for subject-matter experts rather than generalists, and are doing so on a deadline.
Let’s talk about specifics for a moment; if you’ve got a profile or are in the process of building one, you might want to follow along.
The “Introduction” field of the Story section is the most feature-rich and customizable of the profile subsections. Its name may imply that it is meant for a personal narrative, and it can certainly be used for that purpose. But it affords other options as well. The subsection allows for typeface selection, ordered and unordered lists, and hyperlinking. So you can use it to construct a a résumé or portfolio incorporating links to contract projects, information regarding grants and awards you’ve won, and electronic versions of publications and works of art.
For a sampling of what can be done with this section of the Google+ profile, take a look at these great examples: Here are documentary photographer Jan Husar, medical anthropologist Kevin Groark, and Northern Arizona biology graduate student Anjel Craig.
While you’re editing the Places section, the heading “Places Lived” appears. Once you’ve finished editing, however, that heading reverts to “Places.” So this is a nice place to identify yourself as a regional expert to any journalists who might be on the lookout.
The “Other names” field of the Basic Information section is important if you’ve ever published online under a different name: It will tell Google to associate that content with you, under the name you’ve given your profile.
The “Contributor to” fields of the Links section allow you to identify yourself as the creator of electronic content via Google Authorship. The domain name (e.g., scientificamerican.com) of the site to which you contributed content should suffice for this purpose.
Making use of Google Authorship
There are already a number of resources online describing how to set up Google Authorship—the company has a DIY guide here, and there are a number of additional tutorials, such as this one. (Suffice it to say that you tell Google+ where to find your writing, and then you link back to Google+ from the pieces you’ve written.) So better here to discuss why it’s worth going to the trouble to do so.
Your photo alongside search results: Remember that headshot you picked when you set up your profile? If you claim authorship for an online article or blog post, and verify it with Google (again, see those instruction links in the paragraph above), that photo will appear as part of the results whenever someone finds that piece in a search:
The idea is that content associated with an author’s photo will stand out visually from surrounding results, and thus will draw more clicks.
Claiming Google Authorship also serves to pull together varied content. I created online content on a variety of topics, including guest posts for a blog about counter-insurgency warfare and for an anthropology blog, in addition to material I wrote as a contributing writer for a winter sports-related publication. Search results associated with my posts at these sites all include a link to my Google+ profile, confirming that the same author is, in fact, responsible for that fairly disparate range of topics.
(Note that Author attribution for guest posts requires the collaboration of the administrators of the sites to which you contribute. You’ll need to request that they include the Author markup on the pages for which you wish attribution.)
Faster indexing (possibly): Though Google has neither confirmed nor denied this, online chatter from search-engine optimization professionals suggests that content with a "verified" author gets put at the front of the queue when Google's bots come web-crawling, being indexed within 24 hours. If this is indeed the case, Google+ provides a nice means of helping you distribute your content while it is still newsworthy.
As of February 2014, Google+ still isn’t a competitor to Twitter and Facebook, at least not when it comes to distributing links to friends and followers. It is a very useful complement to them in a public outreach workflow, however. If you’re looking for as many options as possible to garner a larger audience for your work—and if you work in science communication, especially in the social sciences, as I do, you probably should be—it’s an arrow well worth keeping in your quiver.