Social Signals: This Changes Everything

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.

The data shown is from one of SEOmoz’s ranking factors studies in 2011.

 

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.

What’s Next?

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.

Rob Ousbey

Rob Ousbey

Rob joined Distilled’s London office in 2008 as an SEO Consultant. Over the years, he’s developed and executed SEO strategy for clients from small businesses to large organizations, and managed Distilled’s Reputation Management projects, where he’s...   read more

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16 Comments

  1. Absolutely. First there was the link graph, now the social graph. Both are having a big effect on web sites in terms of rankings. Then you have the "Author" graph that Google are building via G+ and rel="author."

    It's good that (good) SEOs / marketers are data hungry as the analysis of data is a key skill. Mugging up on ninja spreadsheet skills is a really good investment of time.

    One thing I've spotted yesterday and would like to share is the new ability to do network analysis right in Google Docs. Want to see the link graph? Find the influential nodes in a social network? Easy. Gather the data, feed it in and Google's processing power do the hard work!

    https://sites.google.com/site/fusiontablestalks/stories

    Jeremy.

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  2. More info on social network analysis using Google Fusion here: http://support.google.com/fusiontables/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2566732

    This is useful stuff. Get mapping :)

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  3. Thanks for the article; very thorough and informative!

    I have to wonder, though. Your post makes it seem as though Google has access to all of this social data from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. which it uses to supplement its ranking algorithm. Danny Sullivan pointed out in a Marketing Land article published not too long ago, however, that Google doesn't have API access to Facebook/Twitter, so just how much social data does Google ACTUALLY have access to? Even the SEL article you cited is from 2010, when Google still had a partnership with Twitter.

    I completely agree that social media has become an essential part of a successful SEO strategy (if only because one can use it to create relationships that will eventually lead to an old-fashioned link), but aren't we exaggerating the importance of these social signals just a little bit?

    Would love to get your thoughts!

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  4. Yair Spolter

    Great post Rob!

    I agree that using social signals is one small step for Google and one giant leap for mankind.
    These signals are authentic measures of value - I can't imagine how black-hatters would be able to get around this one.

    Good content should get good SERP ratings. Period.

    Rob, 2 question:
    1. Do you think that Google will start relying on social signals more and more as time goes on?
    2. Do you think that Google gives a disproportionate amount of weight to Google+ social signals? If so, what's your opinion about this?

    Thanks,

    YS

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  5. Rob,

    Couldn't agree more about the emerging role of social signals in search. And the examples you cite are somewhat persuasive. I'm still waiting for that scientific study demonstrating highly-shared link-less pages appearing in unpersonalized results.

    I think it's also worth noting that, like links, social signals have complexity. For example, shares can be weighted by relevance and authority of the sharer, liker, etc.

    In any event, you're right on, social changes everything.

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  6. Hi Rob,

    Fully agreed... but:

    I still don't believe (nor do i see it in my stats actually), that people do link out to and share category-pages. It might happen here and then, that category-pages from fashion brands, electronic gadgets, etc. might be linked/shared from Pinterest and other special interest social sites.

    Working in the local search space a few years now, i can tell you that category-pages from local review platforms or local search portals won't get linked voluntarily, if you haven't developed some kind of website widget where you can insert topically relevant links to those pages...

    Regards,
    Sebastian

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  7. I was really expecting to see more social signs BUT NOT social network signs. I mean, how difficult it is to apply some math to avail social signs like testimonials, referrals, or simple notes from normal people outside social networks?

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  8. Great article and helpful insights. I do think thought that social presents its own special set of problems. For instance, verticals that don't do well in the "popular" social networks. Our vertical (commercial equipment) doesn't gain much traction in social. While there are opportunities with sharing content via LinkedIn to reach our target group, from what I have seen most of the chatter is around FB, Twitter, and G+ (indeed heavily weighted recently towards G+) where there just isn't engagement with interested parties.

    Second, the system is fairly easy to game (take a look at bots opening pinterest accounts). While pinterest is helpful and we get a good amount of interaction, getting those signals incorporated into the search results will take a while, especially with the aforementioned bot problem.

    Third, social sites rise and fall. So far the search engines are committed to supporting one, maybe two of the most popular Social Networks, it will be a long time before they support other SN and incorporate their signals into the algorithm. Leaving many verticals out in the cold as well as hampering adoption of new social sites.

    The challenge of integrating social networks is undoubtedly huge, hindered all the more by company squabbles (FB vs. Google, and is G+ ever going to be open to Bing....I doubt it).

    In the end social is important, if for no other reason than networking and building out a following. But there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed before it could be applied to every vertical.

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  9. No doubt that Social is the future of ranking. It's a "real" indicator of what "real" people are sharing and discussing.

    Unfortunately though, I'm afraid that eventually it will be hacked, spammed, and bought off just like every decent indicator has up to this point. The real trick will be figuring out what will rise after social falls. I'm drawing a blank...

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  10. The insights are spot on and saying otherwise would mean that we consider search algorithms to be boxed and irrespective of the current real online world trends.

    We know social signals are a factor - by how much? We don't know... these social signals indicate what is trendy and what is hot at the very least, but how exactly can they indicate relevance to a semantic search for example?

    Anyway, I think it would be interesting to know too how fields outside of Search will help in determining which content / link bait ideas would receive a big, sustainable and long lasting social embrace...

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  11. Dan

    I totally agree, social signals are now a very relevant factor in search results and how SEO is practiced in 2012, however, I do think it's just what we should of anticipated.

    The overarching theme here is branding and with the emergence of social media as a valuable resource to people and companies over the last few years it should be pretty natural to these results as by product of branding campaigns. The only difference now is the medium at which we focus our efforts in. So the correlation of social signals with ranking pages should be obvious as Google wants to provide the best and most relevant brands at the top of it's results.

    As time passes I think we should be asking ourselves what will be the next relevant factor in determining the worth of a brand rather than what will be the next factor that may be used in an algorithm to determine search results.

    I am curious to see research done as to how other forms of media (offline & online advertising for example) correlate with social signals as I would imagine that a lot of companies naturally gain social traction through branding efforts and socially driven ad campaigns. I sometimes feel that we are missing factors that could have an indirect effect on SEO because they aren't inbound marketing tactics. Anyways, great post Rob!

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  12. Hi Rob Ousbey

    Thanks for sharing this nice post.
    Social networking is really one of the most important factors in search engine nowadays.The Social signals are great indicators to judge a site.

    Thanks again
    Regards

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  13. I think the higher relevance of social media in search rankings was always something to be expected. Not so long ago people would simply ignore setting up social accounts and many of my clients that though it was a 'waste of time' now use social networking all the time, often gaining much greater exposure than any other free means.

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  14. Rob

    I think people are forgetting how much data is public, and therefore available to Google, from Facebook, Twitter, etc. The most important use for Facebook in regard to contributing to SEO are the 'Pages', which are public. Twitter is completely open, too.

    That's why I don't think it'll be hard at all for Google to integrate social factors into the SERPs.

    Brilliant write-up!

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  15. Hi Rob, loving this article! I found you while surfing the net, looking for ways to convince small business owners that social media is worthy of their time. We're an internet marketing company in Australia (Think Big Online) and we speak with a lot of small businesses who want to have a website but they don't want anything else. http://www.thinkbigonline.com.au/why-twitter-facebook-and-google-are-must-haves-in-your-seo-arsenal/ I think your post creates a strong case for the importance of social media. We have one client (nice bloke that he is) who says, "I don't have a Facebook account but I still have lots of friends."

    "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." Small businesses need to seize this day. Cheers, Alisa

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  16. Great article and very inspiring...

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