Before every Distilled conference, we hold a dinner for all the speakers and some 'VIP' conference attendees. During the dinner at 2011's Searchlove New York, someone asked the question "What do you think will be the biggest change to search ranking factors over the next couple of years?"
It's a great question, and I didn't hesitate to give an answer: the integration of social signals will be more impactful than we could have anticipated.
Back in the Day
When Google launched (around 15 years ago) it was clearly streets-ahead of other search engines at the time. Whereas other people trusted the content of a page to determine topic-relevancy, Google used the links between pages to assess the relative 'authority' of pages and sites.
For the intervening few years, this was the way things were; building links to a site helped it rank. There was huge value in being well linked-to, as Google could send massive numbers of visitors for popular terms. Ranking well for these terms brought a big pay off. However, if you launched a new website, the number of sites / people who could actually link to you was pretty small. To give you some idea of scale: In 1995, there were 150,000 registered domains. We know that the number of websites has grown pretty fast since then, but the fact remained: there was a limited set of people who could ever actually give a link to your site.
These 'linkerati' (a term coined by Rand) began as private website owners, 'webmasters' for bigger companies or journalists/editors for online news sources. Later, as 'blogging' became more popular, a whole new class of people that were able to link appeared.
Despite the web's growth and the increasing ease with which anyone start a blog and begin publishing content online, I'd argue that there's still a very high barrier to becoming the owner of an authoritative site, and that the 'ability to link' has been concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people. This relatively small number of people have been the only ones with any ability to influence search engine rankings of other sites. But now, that's changed.
This Changes Everything
Over the last year or two, Google has begun integrating 'social signals' into its algorithms for creating search results. Google is able to see the number of 'Likes' a page gets (which could be tweets on Twitter, likes/shares on Facebook, +1s on Google+, etc) as well as the personal connections between the users of these social sites. They've publicly talked about using the number of shares on Twitter, and SEOmoz data suggested a correlation between Facebook Likes to a page and its ranking position.
Armed with this kind of data, Google has used it in two fairly different ways to improve search results:
1/ Social signals as an authority measure: if a page gets more 'Likes', then it's more trusted by Google and could rank higher. It's not entirely clear yet whether Google is using raw 'Like' numbers from any/all of the social sites yet, or to what degree this data affects SERP positioning - but I really like this idea. In some ways, it's actually harder to 'game' social signals, so sites/pages that have received a lot of love from 'the internet public' are likely to be more useful to me. In addition, the information "2,500 people +1ed this page" is a truly useful piece of social proof.
2/ Using social for SERP personalization: some activities are simply easier when you have trusted recommendations. For example, if I search for 'web hosting' and see that one result says "Duncan Morris shared this page on Twitter", then it's extremely likely that I'll be taking a closer look at the brand that my friend recommended.
Of course, the most significant difference between 'social signals' and 'link metrics' is the much lower barrier to entry. Running a blog - even a basic one - requires some degree of planning, good ideas, and carries the implication of regular posting. Starting a Twitter feed is so simple that my mum could do it (as indeed she has). Facebook is already a part of most US/UK people's lives.
So, rather than simply trusting the link of a small-ish number of people with their own websites, Google can look to the 140 million people publishing short-form content (and links) on Twitter and to the almost 1 billion people posting, sharing and linking on Facebook. Talking of low barriers to entry, Google+ is automatically available to anyone with a Google account, including the owners of the 350 million Gmail accounts that already exist.
As a website owner or marketer in 2012, all of this should change:
- your target audience: creating content that will appeal to the 'traditional linkerati' and only promoting your site to bloggers and website owners are activities that will miss some big opportunities. Appealing to personas that you've never targeted before might feel strange, until you realize the size of the demographic niches. Creating content for the "25 year old female, non-tech savvy, Facebook user" or the "65 year old male, retired, Twitter user" could get you a lot of love from non-weblink sources, and from groups that your competitors aren't tackling.
- your scale: clearly, one tweet isn't the authoritative equivalent of one link, not least because the first is much easier to get and easier to give. Tackling a socially connected audience is necessarily done at greater scale than traditional linkbuilding, but you have to 'aim high' to get results that will really move the needle.
- your approach to content: there are some wonderful overlooked benefits here. People building links for SEO have long lamented that no one ever links to category or product pages, hence the growth of linkbait and non-commercial content designed to attract links. However, awesome products & other commercial pages are widely shared on social networks. Indeed, one of the hottest new social media sites, Pinterest, is almost entirely dedicated to sharing products. (EG: check out the pinned content from the website of shoe retailer Solestruck.com)
Search and Social
Of course, lots of people are currently 'doing social media': it already has value from a branding, traffic and conversion perspective. But if you're inside one of the companies / teams who is told that there's budget for SEO but not social media, then it's now possible to demonstrate that any effort in Social will have 'double benefit' - you'll be getting some SEO boost through this work.
And what if you invest loads of time in social media, only to find out that Google decides to diminish the influence of social signals? Well, then you've still worked to build a loyal following, who trust you and your brand. It's hardly a terrible outcome.
Many SEOs are data hungry, and right now there's one simple tool I'd recommend, to start researching how your site and your competitors are performing from a social perspective: Open Site Explorer from SEOmoz. I probably use it more than many other individual tool for SEO analysis, but it has some pretty robust social features as well. For example, looking at the OSE 'Top Pages' report for REI.com shows that their adventure / family adventure pages have been well shared on Facebook. The same report for Thomson shows the success they've had on Twitter with some non-commercial content.
Distilled loves the ideas behind content marketing and 'inbound marketing'. I've avoided using the terms here, since 'social marketing' is something of a subset of these practices, but anyone making an investment in reaching people outside of 'the linkerati' will benefit in many ways, not least seeing themselves doing increasingly well at SEO. This will be particularly true as Google weighs social signals more heavily in it's calculations - which I have no doubt they will.