SEARCH STREETThe word on Search Street is that Google’s been making some pretty major changes to its search algorithm and that social signals are now being given a lot more weight as ranking factors.

By social signals, we mean activity on social network pages that relates to your website. It could be a link from someone else’s Twitter account to a news item on your website; it could be a link to your latest blog post from your own company Facebook page; or someone reading that blog article and clicking the Facebook ‘like’ button at the bottom of the item.

But is this social activity making a difference to Google rankings? And if it does, are the social networks just a few additional links out of many passing PageRank?

We can start off by looking at what Google have said themselves. Back in May 2010, Google’s Matt Cutts said in a video that Google did not use social media as a ranking signal. But in December that year, Matt revealed that Twitter and Facebook were now beginning to be used by Google as ranking signals. [Rollover here to view]

He went on to say that Google also took into account the authority of the linking social media account, or reputation of the author. Which is totally in line with Google’s general link methodology.

Google may be generally tight-lipped about its black box of tricks but when it does release information about current or impending algorithm tweaks and updates, it usually pans out to be true. We’ve had advance notice of major updates and seen first-hand how Panda has taken aim at low quality websites. We’ve recognised the folly of chasing after directory links and ‘low relevance’ links after being repeatedly warned that Penguin would render these efforts useless.

Google has more data and signals at its disposal than ever before, which makes it difficult for us to determine exactly what is having an effect on a site’s PageRank at any particular point in time. It’s a constantly shifting landscape. In early May 2013, Cutts said in a video that the abundance of extra data available to Google meant that they would be able to get ‘munging’ and would soon produce a sophisticated new linking system.

Surely a good proportion of this new data has got to be coming from social networks. In the same video, he revealed that one of Google’s stated obectives for the latest Penguin 2.0 update is to turn up the volume for authority websites. And if you were asked to rate the authority of someone [a website], wouldn’t you pay close attention to the number of people talking about them [social shares] and look at how influential those people were [examine the profile of those sharers]?

This year the shift has been towards the inclusion of more human engagement factors, such as traffic patterns on a page, the quality and quantity of comments, AuthorRank, ‘likes’, tweets, ‘+1s’ and other shares. To a certain extent, interaction on sites like Facebook mimics human engagement in real life. This makes it easier to understand why Google deems this engagement a factor in the importance and relevance of a site to an audience defined by search activity, locality and history. To this end, the search engine is looking at the attention a site is receiving from people on social networks and adding this to the data from other ranking factors to give a more accurate position in the SERPs.

Several SEO experts, including Peter Visser from SocialmediaToday.com, have carried out experiments to test how social media activity impacts on search rankings. Whilst none of the experiments we’ve seen could be described as robust academic studies and therefore able to be aggregated in a meaningful way, they have nevertheless all concluded that social media activity does, in fact, boost search engine ranking. More on that in a minute.

So what social networks should we work on?

The ‘right’ answer is, of course, whatever networks your particular audience uses.

However, it’s also worth considering the different social networks from Google’s perspective. The popularity of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn makes it almost certain that Google is factoring activity on these networks into its algorithm. And, of course, Google+, which seems very likely to emerge as a particularly strong influence due to the level of unrestricted access the search engine has to its data.

Top SEO Social Signals

According to GlobalWebIndex, there are 701 million active Facebook users and 297 million active Twitter users.

Surprisingly, Google+ has overtaken Twitter with a current active user base of 359 million.

Other sources estimate the number of LinkedIn users at 200 million. Pinterest has around 55 million users but is expanding rapidly.

Whilst the definition of what constitutes an ‘active user’ on each channel may be grounds to debate the accuracy of these numbers, these are very large and growing networks.  The figures give the general picture of the networks’ relative sizes.  Did you get that the first time? Google+ is now the world’s #2 social network.

Proof then that Google+ is no longer a test zone for early adopters within the online marketing industry – it’s already a leading social media player. Vic Gundotra, Google’s Senior VP of Engineering, gives a glimpse of his company’s ambition for the network when he says that Google+ is about pivoting ALL of Google around people.

Like, +1, pin or tweet?

Because the total number of ranking factors has been confirmed by Google to be over 200 (for an educated guess at what these could be, check this great infographic out), it is difficult to isolate the social ranking signals and say exactly what has the greatest influence. But it’s clear that different interactions on social networks carry different weights as ranking factors.

When it comes to Facebook, sharing content appears to be the most valuable user action in terms of what it can do for a site’s SEO. This is followed by comments, and finally how many ‘likes’ it has. The order makes sense when you consider that a share is likely to create an additional link back to your site or your site’s Facebook page at least, while a ‘like’ is less effort on the user’s part and indicates a lower level of engagement.

It’s a bit harder to pinpoint how Google is using Twitter interactions to influence SERPS. But from what we’ve seen, a fresh mention has a higher impact than a retweet, which in turn carries more weight than a favourite. Sure, links are ‘no-follow’. But the signs are that Google treats Twitter links slightly differently than other websites with no-follow links. Another ‘layer’ of evaluation probably exists, where Google grades the more popular and substantial accounts higher than smaller and less relevant accounts. Just having more followers in itself is not likely to mean much in terms of the influence of the profile link.

LinkedIn can require more effort, prompting some companies to neglect it. But we’ve noted a positive impact on B2B companies’ search visibility following an investment in LinkedIn networking. Creating or joining open groups, which are indexed by search engines, is a worthwhile activity as it’s such a wonderful method to converse with a specialist audience. Ensure your staff are linking to the company website in their profiles. Remember the words of Google’s Exec Chairman, Eric Scmidt: “Information tied to online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification…The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.”

That brings us back to the Google+ network, which of course you have a profile set up on, right? It also has a sharing function and you can, of course, message and comment on pages and links. But the ‘plus one’ function also has a direct impact on the search results in addition to any algorithmic influence it holds. You may have noticed while logged into your Google account that searching the web returns sometimes returns results that people in your Google+ network have +1’d. While you are logged in, those sites that your Google+ network have ‘approved’ will appear higher up. Turn this situation around and it looks like a safe bet that encouraging people to +1 your page on Google+ will pay dividends.

We talked earlier about experiments carried out by search consultants to test the influence of social signals in Google rankings. After having looked at some of the user actions in social networks, see how they score in the following test, carried out by Tasty Placement Inc, an Austin, Texas-based search company:

social signals in search

Social media and your search rankings

A ranking system based on human engagement is going to be understandably difficult to perfect and Google certainly has its work cut out to ensure that it gives due value to genuine social signals, while discounting manipulated data.

Certainly, the algorithms are becoming more intuitive. It’s already rare to see an online marketing strategy that doesn’t feature social media as an integral component. But that’s just it: social media is one component of online marketing and without implementing it as part of a broader strategy it just isn’t enough to make a notable difference to rankings of pages using competitive search terms.

There is no denying its effect on search rankings when social media is integrated into a holistic marketing strategy. Yes, engaging in social media is unlikely to deliver results if you or your company don’t have valuable content to share – without fuel you’re just going to watch your campaign splutter along, barely gaining any traction.

But work hard to build up interesting, unique content first and people will learn very quickly that you have something worth sharing when they find your site or social networking pages.

Once this happens, your campaign should kick into action and start to gain momentum. Research and write a good article, post it up on your site, your social media accounts and link to it in your newsletters. The audience that you have been busy building up and engaging with will start to talk about your article, some of whom will pass it around, boosting the number of links to your site that are flying around the net. Perhaps one of these links will be picked up by a blogger who mentions it in a post, which gets noticed by their thousands of readers. They in turn share your link on their social media profiles which opens up your content and website to a whole new audience through their audience.

After a while you’ll notice improved search rankings that will grow the audience for your next communication.

It’s a natural cycle that revolves around human behaviour. Google is throwing everything it has at building algorithms that can interpret this, so don’t try and trick it. By meeting the expectations of your audience by creating unique and sharable content and delivering it to your networks, you’ll be noticed by Google. Engage people and they will do the hard work for you.

Has social media has helped your online search visibility? 

(Thanks to Eleanor Ward for helping research this article)


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