Users can now share links from SERPs to their Google+ accounts with the company's new Share feature.

Last year, countless small businesses around the United States were turning Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to put together a social media marketing strategy that could help their companies attract prospects and leads online. As many were finding their stride with social marketing, Google threw a major wrench into the channel with its own entry into the social market. Google+ rolled out in late June and quickly became one of the most discussed new websites in recent memory.

In its earliest stages, Google+ was invite-only, as the company looked to improve its network as much as it could prior to opening it to all. As time moved on, the exclusivity wall was lifted for consumers. Eventually, Google+ Pages rolled out, and businesses of all sizes rushed to Google+ to discover what the platform could do for their companies.

During the initial roll out, Google worked with a number of partners to demonstrate the benefits of Google+ Pages. While major, nationally recognized brands, such as the Dallas Cowboys and Coca-Cola, were among the first early adopters, a small bike shop in Manhattan was highlighted as a Google+ user and demonstrated that the platform also holds potential for small businesses.

Zen Bikes, at that point, was the lone SMB using Google+. Owner John Keoshgerian discussed how some tools available on Google+ allowed him to serve his customers better while also promoting his business.

Since the Pages release in November, countless more small businesses have taken to Google+ to leverage the platform for marketing.

What exactly is Google+ and how is it different from other networks?

Google+ currently has 170 million users, the company announced earlier this month. Since last June, Google has adjusted its service multiple times to allow different people to become members. After lifting the invite-only wall, Google essentially automatically enrolled all existing Gmail users in the service.

It now requires anyone signing up for Gmail to create a Google+ account as well. Using the service is still up to the individual account-holders, but the potential user base of Google+ is essentially anyone that hopes to access another Google service, whether it’s Gmail or Google Docs.

Ultimately, Google+ is a social network aimed at providing a method for all Google users to communicate and share content. The +1 and Share buttons are Google+’s answer to the Facebook Like and other social widgets added to website content. But while share data shows up directly on Facebook, Google+ share data also crops up in paid or organic search when, as Google says, users might need a friend’s endorsement to decide where to click. It’s more of a social thread than a social network. Whether or not users are actively visiting Google+, they can still see which content friends recommend as they search the web when they’re logged into Gmail and (by default) Google+.

The Google+ website, itself, is similar to other networks as users can follow their friends, colleagues and others as well as businesses and organizations active on the site. However, some of its tools and features offer SMBs functionality that Facebook, Twitter and others simply do not.

Google+ Circles and Hangouts are two of the social network’s most distinguishing features.

When Pages first rolled out, Keoshgerian highlighted the ways his small businesses used each feature. With Circles, SMBs can assign their followers to certain segments, which makes it easy to share specific pieces of content with unique audiences. This feature should be especially appealing as ContentLEAD has reported that business owners cite effective targeting as one of the keys to web marketing success. With Circles, businesses can break down their Google+ contacts so if there are certain followers that are already clients or customers, they can be reached with information about new product offerings or best practices on how to maximize a company’s services. Another Circle with contacts in the prospect phase might be reached with content that build demand more than retention. And it doesn’t have to end there: Business owners can break audiences into Circles according to region, gender, buyer roles and more. Sharing certain content with these users can help guide them through a conversion funnel they’re most likely to respond to.

Other social networks offer similar capability, but the clean interface of Google+ can make it more appealing and easier for SMBs to manage their Circles.

Google+’s other standout feature, Hangouts, lets SMB owners host large scale video chats with its Circles to answer questions, offer feedback or simply discuss new products or services with their prospects.

Keoshgerian mentioned during the roll out of Google+ that he used Hangouts to hold bike repair clinics with his most loyal customers and answer questions they had about their bikes. While this specific use of Hangouts may not apply to all companies, the feature holds possibilities that SMBs can leverage to better serve their target audience.

Now we’ve covered some of the features that make Google+ stand out as a social network… but let’s go back to the idea that its more of a “social thread” to explore how building a G+ presence might impact your overall web appeal.

Google+ directly impacts search rankings

In mid-January, Google announced the release of Search, plus Your World, which was the first step in integrating data from the social network into search results.

With the release, SMBs that maintain an active Google+ presence can greatly influence their presence in search results of logged-in users. Anytime a searcher conducts a query for a company name or related keywords a business includes in content, Google+ data related to that query and users’ G+ contacts will likely appear in the results.

For example, if a user or business in one of a searcher’s Google+ Circles has +1′ed or shared a piece of content, it will likely appear on a relevant SERP, given priority because a G+ contact has advocated the content. The searcher will also see which of their contacts has endorsed or shared the content via icons presented alongside the result. Moreover, any search for the name of a small business will yield a link to their Google+ Page below their actual website, giving a company more SERP dominance for its business name.

Maintaining a consistent Google+ presence by sharing quality website content on the network and interacting with followers can help a small business improve search status. This also applies to visual content of all kinds with Google+. Sharing photos that connect to content marketing articles, for example, will help engagement, but it will also help boost ranking for Image searches.

To this point, Google+ has struggled to resonate as heavily as Facebook or Twitter with consumers and businesses alike. However, the simple fact that Google has integrated its social network so heavily with search makes an active Google+ presence a competitive necessity for small businesses looking to improve their presence on the web.

The question now is exactly how a small business can use Google+ in the day to day to maximize search and social reach. In part 2, we’ll look into some specific campaigns, why they’re successful and how your small business can see similar results with Google+ for social media marketing.