In the past, Google has flip-flopped on the idea of social signals as park of the ranking. Matt Cutts has said before – way back in 2010 – that social signals did indeed have an impact. To this day, webmasters still operate under that assumption, and as it turns out, many of the actions they take are still valid SEO tactics. More likes, more shares, more retweets; all of these indicate a more popular and higher performing piece of content. The problem is, that’s not Google’s doing.
Google’s most recent stance on social signals can be viewed in a video from Matt Cutts himself. Essentially, what he says is simple. Facebook, Twitter and other social sites are treated just like any other website. If a piece of content is linked on a social media site, that link is crawled, with the standard follow or nofollow attributes. What we term social signals, however – likes, shares, retweets, pins, etc – are not counted or factored in.
Some of the language Cutts uses does hint at a future where social signals may have a more defined impact in search ranking. If this is on the horizon, no doubt we will all hear about it when it arrives. Until then, you can be safe in the knowledge that social signals do not directly influence your search ranking.
The problem is in the data. A piece of content with 10 likes does worse than one with 50. A piece shared 100 times does better than one with under a dozen shares. It certainly seems like social signals influence SEO. The truth is, they do, indirectly. It all just comes back to a familiar statistical dilemma, that correlation does not equal causation.
A number of studies have been performed, using Facebook, Twitter and Google+, to measure the effects of social signals on SEO. The results can be predicted; content with higher rates of social engagement perform better on the search results pages. This is largely due to the fact that the content is generally better, of higher quality and with better promotion.
After all, many of the metrics that do affect SEO can be found in social media. Shares are similar to nofollowed incoming links. Comments are comments, and the line is particularly blurred on sites using the Facebook comments plugin. You can read all about the testing here: http://blog.echelonseo.com/social-signals-not-seo-ranking-factor/
Why Google Doesn’t Factor Social Signals
There are a number of good reasons Google doesn’t factor in social signals.
- • Data such as “likes” and “+1s” are hard to measure and quantify. There’s no way for Google to identify your like linked to your account, so it has no way to pass authority. Without authority weighting the likes, they become an easy number that can be bought and sold.
- • Google has been blocked from both Facebook and Twitter in the past. If it were to spend a significant amount of engineering time to develop a way to measure social signals and incorporate them into search, it would require that those sites not block the search engine. If Google was blocked again, suddenly a large portion of what it relied on for measuring links is gone.
- • Social signals are viewed as temporary, but they are permanent. With a link on a blog, if the destination of the link changes, you can remove the link. With a link on Facebook or Twitter, the link is gone from your memory. No one checks back to check the quality of the link or to edit it if that site changes.
- • Social media sites tend to be competitors with Google+ on some level. This is why Google+ seems to have more influence with ranking than Facebook. The search engine could never get away with showing favoritism by demoting Facebook out of search rankings, but it can easily give Google+ search benefits to attract professional users and webmasters to the platform.
- • Social signals can change. Facebook could easily do away with the concept of likes entirely, if it so desired. It could change how sharing works. Twitter could add a new function to compliment retweets. When the way those sites operate changes, Google must adapt.
Why Social Signals are Still Important
Social signals are an indirect influencer for SEO. A share on Facebook won’t directly increase your search ranking. It will, however, expose your content to a wider audience and give it the opportunity to be further shared and referenced on other social media sites, blogs and websites.
Furthermore, social sharing brings in value to users. Value to users is what Google is all about. Social shares lead to comments and links to your site from other blogs, and comments on your own content, which are valid SEO signals.
Google+ also has some unique benefits. Sharing your content on that site gives you access to faster indexing and the benefits of Authorship. These help get your content off the ground faster, which helps it rank higher.
Perhaps most importantly is the concept of brand awareness, trust and exposure. Social media puts your brand image into the hearts and minds of your users. Sharing your content broadens that exposure.
Brand Mentions and the Future of SEO
Brand mentions are a powerful indicator. In the past, Google has relied on links to discover new content and pass authority. Based on recent patents, however, it looks like Google is going to demote the power of links in search. Links will still be important for content discovery and indexing, as well as user navigation. Their power to pass link authority, however, will decline. In its place will be the brand mention.
Before, if you wanted your brand tied to a link, you needed to mention your brand in the anchor text for that link. In the future, brand mentions will become implied links themselves. When a brand like Facebook is mentioned on a site that isn’t Facebook, Google knows what brand you’re talking about. It can then assign some relevance between that content and the mentioned brand.
How exactly brand mentions are going to work is still up in the air. Google’s patent is unclear, simply mentioning implied connections; the rest is extrapolation. However, it seems like it may be a way to incorporate some social signals without directly reading those signals. If someone shares your Facebook post, that post has your brand name attached, and thus some authority can be derived.