How does it work?

Through XHTML Friends Network (XFN) & Friend of a Friend (FOAF), the Social Graph API looks for relationships between web properties, whether you control that relationship or not. rel=”me”, amongst other microformats, are added to any hyperlink where you wish to indicate a relationship. You can set how the link is related to you (co-worker link, friendship, parent, child, etc.) You can even create your own mix.

Search Engine use of XFN and FOAF

If you have a Google profile and you have added your sites, there is a checkbox available for each site that says, “This is a profile about me”. When selected, a rel=”me” is added to the link within your profile. You control this and any other sites you may want to add.

Beyond your connected sites that you’ve added to your Google profiles, profiles within other properties of Google also makes use of XFN or FOAF. Buzz, Maps, Picasa, Youtube and any others that you have opted to publicly share your information, also share the public relationships. You can, of course, control what you share through your Google accounts dashboard.

Now what of the sites you don’t control?

Well Quora is a good example. As soon as you have set up a profile on Quora, the rel=”me” is already set up on your behalf within your profile page. Every time you connect with someone new Quora a, rel=”contact” will be added. To see this for yourself, click either of the links under those you follow or who follow you and view the source.

Congratulations you are now part of the Social Graph via Quora!

So how does this affect my searching behaviour?

To put Quora to a completely unscientific and very simple test I was looking for an exact match for “How can a lazy SEO get a million high quality links in a few weeks time?” (instant off/signed in) which was a question posted on Quora by Barry Adams. I am connected to Barry via Twitter and Quora and I can see this relationship via my direct connections from links listed within my Google profile.

However, the search did not trigger the social circle within the SERP. Nor did a direct search for the exact phrase yield any results from a direct social search. Realtime results showed only my original tweet from the 5th January; this was not what I was expecting. I expected the SERP to show Barry`s face smiling back at me.

Is This Thing On?

I know Google’s Social Circle Beta works, because If I search for “Barry Adams” I get him smiling back at me. How long does it take before I get Barry smiling back at me for my original query, though? Well, as it turns out, I couldn`t.

So, are we to take it that Quora is weak signal in the Social Graph? That would be a bad assumption to make based on one single search, but I am yet to see any of Quora`s Q`s or A`s show up within my personalized Social Circle. Quora is still relatively young, so the jury is still out.

So What of XFN and FOAF in the future?

Beyond Google’s use of Twitter and Facebook within realtime results (and the odd SERP), we seem to be still at the early stages of Social Media. “Early stages” as in, it’s still growing as an immediate presence in our regular organic searches. With the pace at which search engines move these days, it would not shock me for XFN and FOAF to be huge in the future.

Effects on search behaviour. We already know personalised search has an effect on what we search for and social media signals are a ranking factor. So, is it all about keeping a tight, relevant network of who you follow? Staying on topic of the searches you are targeting? Wouldn`t that take the fun away from the whole purpose of “social”?

Using XFN and FOAF as a Tool to Rank?

Declaring your web properties on the sites that you control through use of the rel=”me” may give indications of relevance in the grand scheme of G`s algo, but it’s a weak one.

Guest Post by Dean Cruddace | @DeanCruddace

Dean is an 8-year SEO veteran and the managing director of SEO Begin, LTD from across the pond in Sunderland, England. Welcome, Dean!

Further Reading

Alan Bleiweiss has already brought a great resource together explaining the use of microformats in more detail.