Social Signals are NOT an SEO Ranking Factor

social signals are not SEO Ranking factorsStraight to the point – spoiler alert – social media signals (likes, shares, +1s) – are not direct SEO ranking signals.

Have you read otherwise? Yeah – me too. Almost daily I find new blog articles extolling the importance of Social Media as an SEO ranking factor.

There’s definitely confusion surrounding this issue, even within the SEO industry and among industry leaders. Search is very rarely cut and dry, but this issue seems to be especially confusing and misunderstood.

Sorting Through the Clutter

The History

Google has done their share to add to the confusion. For starters, in 2010 Google spokesperson Matt Cutts released this video confirming that Twitter and Facebook links were, at that time, used as SEO signals.

In 2011, Google launched Google+ and announced “authorship markup” – a way to connect authors to their content. These changes allowed for direct access to, and control of, a social media platform by Google, and was an established step to identifying influencers. Both contributed to leading the SEO industry and marketers t0 believe that social media, specifically Google+, was going to become a greater influence on search.

A 2011 Wired article “Google Explores Re-Ranking Search Results Using +1 Button Data” was based on an email from Google:

“Google will study the clicks on +1 buttons as a signal that influences the ranking and appearance of websites in search results,” a spokesman wrote. “The purpose of any ranking signal is to improve overall search quality. For +1’s and other social ranking signals, as with any new ranking signal, we’ll be starting carefully and learning how those signals are related to quality.”

But then  . . .

During a question/answer panel at SES San Francisco in 2012, Cutts was asked about the importance of +1s in search. His response:

“We continue to experiment. I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on plus ones quite yet.” – Matt Cutts, 2012

Earlier this year (January 2014), Cutts was asked “Are Facebook and Twitter part of the ranking Algorithm?”. His answer:

“Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But as far as doing special specific work to sort of say “you have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook”, to the best of my knowledge we don’t currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.” – Matt Cutts

Clearly, it’s Google’s position, according to Cutts, that social signals are not influencing Google SEO – at least not yet.

Correlation VS Causation

Moz and Search Metrics each publish very popular and interesting correlation studies regarding Search Engine Ranking factors.  In 2013 Social Media figured prominently in both, with Google +1’s being the top factor for each.  Although both publishers clearly identify them as “correlation” rather than causation studies- that message was often missed or overlooked by readers and bloggers.

Matt Cutts’ response to these correlation studies:

“Just trying to decide the politest way to debunk the idea that more Google +1s lead to higher Google web rankings. Let’s start with correlation != causation: http://xkcd.com/552/

The Research

Eric Enge and Mark Traphagen of Stone Temple Consulting, have produced some very interesting work on the impact of Social Signals and Google Authorship on SEO rankings this past year.

Study: Direct Measurement of Google Plus Impact on Search Rankings

In this study, Eric Enge set out to measure the direct impact of Google+ shares on Google’s search engine rankings, and presented results that confirmed that “links and shares from Google+ and Facebook did behave like traditional web based links”.

His results were questioned by Matt Cutts, which apparently led to a on-stage discussion between Matt, Eric and Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Land. The discussion concluded with Eric agreeing to repeat the study, this time implementing some of Matt’s suggestions on how to improve it.

The study was designed to measure the impact that Google Plus “shares” had on discovery, indexing and ranking of content for non-personalized results.

Results

Eric points out that there is room for error in the study, and admits that not everyone agreed with his findings. However, from the study he concluded that:

  • Google+ “shares” do drive discovery
  • Google+ “shares” probably drive indexing
  • Google+ “shares” do not drive ranking

Read Eric Enge’s article – Direct Measurement of Google Plus Impact on Search Rankings – for a detailed description the study.

A follow up “Google Hangout” offered interesting debate and questions among SEOs regarding the results, limitations, and methodology of the study.

Study: Does Facebook Activity Impact SEO?

Stone Temple Consulting also completed a study on the effect of Facebook activities on Google search rankings, with similar results:

  • Google does not use the “Like” data for search ranking

“When you Like a web page it does not show up on your profile. Google has no access to see what you have Liked. This means that Google cannot tell when a respected authority has endorsed something via a Like or not [Tweet This]. They can, of course, execute the Javascript for Like buttons on a page, but once again, they can’t tell who has Liked the page. In other words, a Like purchased from Fiverr looks just the same to Google as a Like by the pre-eminent authority on a topic.

So while Google can load the total number of Likes a page has, it cannot evaluate the quality of those Likes, making the information useless. In fact, every single one of those Likes could have been purchased on Fiverr.”

  • Indexing and Ranking of Facebook Share Links: although the data showed that Google did not even crawl the pages based on Facebook shares, Stone Temple concluded that they had too little data to make a conclusive determination.
  • Google can see who your “Friends” are through the mobile version of Facebook.
  • Google does not index all Shares (even on prominent profiles)

Conclusion: “Google doesn’t use Facebook as a discovery, indexing, or ranking factor.”

A soon to be published STC Twitter study apparently shows similar results – Twitter signals do not have a direct impact on Google’s search results.

The Experts

I surveyed some of my SEO bretheran (and sistern :-)) to get their views on the subject. I asked them “Are Social Signals a DIRECT SEO Ranking Signal? Explain.” Following are the replies that I received:

Brian Dean – Backlinko

Brian Dean “Short answer: no way!”

“Why not? Trust me, Google would LOVE to incorporate social signals into the algorithm. For industries where people share content on social media, social shares generally correlate to quality. It’d be a great way for Google to get away from relying on links as much as they do.

But when you actually get to the point of using social signals to influence rankings, you run into a minefield of issues like:

  • They don’t own the platform. This is HUGE. Let’s say tomorrow Google made Facebook likes/shares 20% of the algorithm. For sake of argument, it worked really well and the quality of search results improved. The one day (Mark) Zuckerberg has a bad day and blocks (the) Googlebot. The SERPs are in turmoil without waring. Google would never do that.
  • You can’t “undo” a social signal. No one talks about this one, but I think it’s another sticking point that prevents Google from using Social signals. When you link to a site, you endorse it. And if that site significantly changes, you can remove the link and endorsement anytime. Not so with a tweet . . . “

Amanda DiSilvestro – highervisibility.com

Amanda DiSilvestro“We’ve heard Matt Cutts say that social signals do not play a role when it comes to the SERPs, and although I don’t always believe everything Google says, I do believe this one. I personally have not seen any type of social signals make a difference in rankings for any clients or when I analyze my own presence online; however this does not mean that I don’t think it could play a role in the future!

I think it’s clear that Google is trying to move more toward popularity and authority over some of the more traditional SEO factors, and social participation can play a big role in that. Google wants to rank people who can bring in a lot of engagement and who really establish themselves as versatile and being able to promote content and ideas on lots of different platforms, in lots of different ways. Whether or not this shift will happen with Google+ only is tough to say, but I think at the bare minimum we will at least see that (Google+ as a social signal) come into play. For now, I still think they aren’t making much of a difference.”

Adam Connell – UK Linkology

Adam ConnellIn 2013, Search Metrics published their “SEO Ranking Factors – Rank Correlation for Google USA results. This showed a high correlation between social signals and ranking increases, particularly G+1’s and Facebook shares.

But this is only a correlation and that doesn’t always equal causation. The thinking behind this is; if your content is good enough to earn a lot of social shares then people will link to it too – it would typically be those backlinks (amongst many other factors) that would be driving rankings.

I don’t feel that social signals have a direct impact on search rankings, but there are a lot of ways that social signals indirectly impact rankings – links are still a serious part of the algorithm but that won’t last forever. Indirect benefits include:

  • Your content is exposed to a much wider audience bringing brand awareness into play.
  • Referral traffic to your content which increases the likelihood that someone will link to your content.
  • The potential to increase your followers which leads to more visibility, returning traffic and the building of a community.
  • When your content is shared, this increases the trust associated with your brand, and when shared by a market influencer this can have a much bigger impact.
  • When someone you follow shares a link on G+, this (can) appear under search results when that particular page is displayed.
  • Google+ displays your friends +1’s in your stream, giving another opportunity for your content to gain traction.
  • When there are more social shares on a piece of content, the social proof factor begins coming into play, which in turn influences how many more social shares and backlinks that the content earns (amongst other benefits).

What I’ve noticed across the sites that I’ve been working on is that some content with very few social shares is outranking other pieces of content with a lot of social signals – the main influencers of rankings that I’m seeing appear to be backlinks from referring domains (authority sites) and the ‘freshness’ of the content.

I can definitely see Google using social signals as a ranking factor in the future but the challenge will be figuring out which social signals actually matter and which need to be discounted.”

Does Social Media Provide Indirect SEO Benefits?

Unquestionably! I’m in no way suggesting that you shouldn’t be on social media, or that it will not help your SEO efforts. It can, and it should definitely be part of your SEO strategy.

Aj Kohn 100X100“Social has an indirect but powerful impact on search rankings. It’s not the actual social activity that matters, but what happens as a result of that activity.” ~ from “Social Signals and SEO” by AJ Kohn

What happens as the result of social activity? As Adam Connell mentioned in his survey response above, in addition to all of the non-SEO benefits, Social Media engagement can result in:

  • exposure to a much wider audience and greater discovery of your content
  • increased brand awareness and trust, especially if “influencers” engage with your content
  • faster discovery of your content
  • possible indexing of your content

. . . all of which can lead to more websites and bloggers linking to your content and improved search engine rankings.

Neil Patel“So, maybe these “signals” we loved so much aren’t working. But so what? Social is still a valuable channel for promotion, content, distribution, virality, and sharing. Social is still a crucial aspect for search even if it doesn’t register as one of Google’s many algorithmic ranking factors.”“Why Social is the New SEO” by Neil Patel

Take Away

Intuitively, it makes sense for Google and the other search engines to include social signals as a direct ranking factor in Search, and I think most SEOs and marketers agree that social will one day play a direct role.

Moving forward:

  • Continue to be active in social media. Make sure to be on Google+ as there are some good arguments as to why that would be the first, and possibly, the only social media signal that Google pays attention to.
  • Make sure to set up your Google Authorship.
  • Personally, I don’t think the number of “likes”, +1’s, or “shares” will be as important as who is engaging with your content. Build a relationship with industry “influencers”.
  • Worry less about the number of “followers” and “friends” that you have, and more about the quality and relevance of those friends and followers.

Brien Shanahan“Search Engines will inevitably take into account social signals because social signals are effective identifiers of great content that people love. Get well positioned and active on social media in anticipation of that day, and in the meantime you’ll still enjoy all the many benefits of reaching new people and making personal connections.” ~ Brien Shanahan – SEO4Advisors

As is so often the case on search related issues, the last word is reserved for Matt Cutts.

Matt Cutts. . .I think over 10 years, we’re more likely to understand identity and to understand the social connections between people, but at least for the time being, we have to deal with the web as it is and what we are allowed to crawl and what we can easily extract from that and count on being able to access that in the future. ~ Matt Cutts, Google

As always, your comments and questions are welcome and appreciated. What has your experience been with Social Media and SEO? Where do you see it going in the future?

 

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Brent is a nationally recognized SEO expert and works with small businesses and Financial Advisors across the country. In addition to this blog, he is a regular contributor to Steamfeed, is syndicated through Social Media Today and B2C, and has written for Search Engine Journal, Spinsucks, and other marketing blogs.
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