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Your Guide to Social Signals for SEO

Wednesday, 7 November, 2012 - 09:57

A brief history of social signals as a ranking factor

Almost two years ago, in December 2010, Danny Sullivan wrote an insightful piece on social signals and their influence on search engine rankings. The article explored the possibility of social signals affecting rankings, but was early for its time; scalable link building methods were all the rage (because they worked), and not much attention was paid to social signals across a large portion of the industry. Sullivan posed the question:

“…are either of the major search engines actually using those social signals to rank regular search results?”

He concluded that data from Facebook was largely unused by Google (due to not having access to personal wall data from Facebook), but that “retweets serve as a new form of link building. Get your page mentioned in tweets by authoritative people, and that can help your ranking in regular search results, to a degree.”

About two weeks later, Matt Cutts released a Webmaster video in which he confirmed that social signals do, in fact, play a role in organic SEO.

We’re still trying to figure out just how strong of a role social signals play in organic SEO rankings: multiple studies have been conducted to determine the exact correlation of social signals and SEO rankings, with varying results. However, it’s clear that the importance of social signals is increasing with time, and that begs several questions:
How and why do social signals improve rankings?
What’s the future of social signals with regard to SEO?
What steps should be taken right now to improve my website’s social signals?

My goal is to explore each of these questions to help readers develop a fundamental knowledge of the critical elements of social signals as they relate to not only SEO, but to the real goal of online marketing: increased website traffic and, ultimately, revenue.
How and why do social signals improve rankings?

While any answer to this question is highly debatable, I believe that social signals have both a direct and indirect impact on organic search rankings. Direct impact comes from:
Number of people that like your brand on Facebook
Number of Facebook shares
Number of Twitter followers
Number of tweets mentioning your brand name or including a link to your website
Number of people that “have you in their circles” (Google+)

From Searchmetrics:

Indirect impact comes from:
Increased inbound links and citations due to improved online visibility/brand awareness
Increased positive reviews (in Google Local , Yelp, etc.) due to happier customers
Decreased bounce rate, higher time on site, and more repeat visitors to your website

While the direct impacts are pretty straightforward, I’ll elaborate on the indirect impacts.

Increased inbound links and citations due to improved online visibility/brand awareness: The most powerful indirect impact of social media is its ability to generate new inbound links by improving brand awareness and overall online visibility.

If you’re able to be found, you’re able to be linked to, and links are still the most important and valuable ranking factor. In fact, while the debate heated up at the July 2012 SMX Advanced over whether social signals were catching up to links in terms of direct impact in the ranking algorithm, Danny Sullivan conducted an interview with Matt Cutts in which Cutts hinted that that links were still the most important criteria in comparison to social signals.

Cutts said, “So, there’s this perception that, yes, everything will go social, or links are completely obsolete, and I think it’s premature to reach that conclusion. I don’t doubt that in ten years things will be more social, and those will be more powerful signals, but I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links quite yet.”

Increased positive reviews (in Google Local, Yelp, etc.) due to happier customers: Social media is often being used these days as an extension of a company’s customer service department. Users can tweet to a company and expect their tweet to be answered. Likewise, customers can get support for a new product on a company’s Facebook page, saving them from annoying automated phone menus and unhelpful outsourced customer service departments.

This easy access to a company helps users feel a closer, organic connection with the brand, increases customer loyalty, and builds consumer trust, all of which lead to more and better reviews on review sites like Google Local and Yelp. Participating in social media channels brings brands closer to customers and potential customers. A brand's social media "voice" defines its image and distinguishes it from a distant entity to a hip, trendy, brand. Think about what Apple did with its famous “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials.

According to Sam McRoberts, CEO of Vudu Marketing, the number of reviews and the positivity of those reviews are two of the three biggest factors in local search rankings. If that’s the case, then it’s not a stretch to believe that Google uses that information in its national rankings as well.

Decreased bounce rate, higher time on site, and more repeat visitors to your website: Consumers that are familiar with a particular brand via social media interaction are more likely to become repeat visitors of a website and spend more time there, increasing the average “time-on-site” metric.

While I’ve published my opinion that bounce rate doesn’t affect SEO rankings, I know there are many SEOs who still believe it does. With that said, a lower bounce rate is usually an indication of higher quality content, and lower bounce rate is generally considered to be better.

Time on site, however, can be used as a metric for organic search ranking. By timing how long it takes for a user to return to the search page after clicking a search result, then analyzing the new search query input by the user, Google can measure whether the visited site gave the user the answer or information they were looking for. Similarly, Google tracks repeat visits to the same website, often showing frequently visited websites highly in personalized search results (i.e. results shown to logged-in users).

So, we know Google tracks these metrics, but do they use them for ranking purposes? There’s no textbook answer, but I believe they do.
What’s the future of social signals with regard to SEO?

In two years, companies playing in competitive niches that don’t have a robust social strategy will be left in the dust by those that do; Social signals are becoming the new “link” in terms of overall importance in the ranking algorithm. While I don’t believe the value of links as a ranking signal will ever completely disappear, I do believe that direct and indirect impacts of social signals will eventually surpass links as the most valuable ranking factor.

Why? Several reasons:
The world is becoming more social. Today’s kids are tomorrow’s consumers, and they are being raised communicating on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. As this generation ages, more consumers will spend more time on social media channels, likely causing an increase in social signals as those consumers interact with their favorite brands on the Web. People already spend more time on social networks than on search engines, and the gap will continue to grow.
People are more likely to trust a website recommended personally by their friends than by a search engine. Websites with a strong social presence are more easily shareable and accessible, and thus easier to recommend. Search engines can also analyze these shares as recommendations, boosting the credibility (and rankings) of the website.
Websites with a strong social presence have better conversion rates and brand loyalty, leading to more sales, more word-of-mouth referrals, and greater brand awareness, which all lead to more positive reviews and inbound links.

Aside from social signals eventually overtaking inbound links as the most valuable ranking signal, there’s a clear upward trend in the importance of AuthorRank as a ranking signal. The idea of associating content with an author, rather than the website on which it resides, is evident in Cutts’ December 2010 Webmaster video “Does Google use data from social sites in ranking?”

Cutts says: “…We’re also trying to figure out a little bit about the reputation of an author or creator on Twitter or Facebook.”

Google expanded on this idea beyond just Twitter and Facebook by implementing Google Authorship, which allows Google to track authors across domains and assign authority and credibility to their content, allowing that content to not only rank higher in search engines for certain queries, but also pass more value to the outbound links contained within.

As Google gains more data on what authors are big players in each various industry/niche, I expect AuthorRank to play a more significant role in rankings. Strategic moves like Google+, Authorship tools, and AuthorRank indicate a careful and cautious approach towards “social search ranking.”
What steps should be taken right now to improve my website’s social signals?

Similar to SEO, there are two core elements to social media: onsite and offsite. In order to properly establish and grow a social media campaign, both elements must be present and refined.

Onsite elements include:
Share buttons (like, recommend, tweet, bookmark, etc.)
Connect buttons (Like a Facebook page, Follow on Twitter, Follow on LinkedIn, etc.)
A blog

Offsite elements include:
Facebook page
Twitter account
LinkedIn company page
Pinterest account
Youtube account
Guest blog posting
Other social media platforms

Here’s a quick step-by-step guide for launching your social media presence:

Step 1: Register your business at the social media channels listed above. Simply having a presence at each social channel creates inbound links and helps to establish credibility of your brand.

Step 2: Set up your company blog, if you don’t already have one. If you do, then start blogging at least once a week. Ideally, aim for at least once a day. Don’t just blog for the sake of blogging, though; make sure your articles contain useful, valuable, or original (qualified) insight. If you need help coming up with ideas on what to blog about, check out this article.

Step 3: Set up your onsite content engine. Whether you choose to do the blogging or you hire an expert writer to write for your blog, this step is crucial. Since I hired writers to write for my company blog a month ago, organic search traffic has jumped by 27.80% and is quickly trending upward. This is because every article published is liked dropping another hook in the water, to use a fishing metaphor. More content on a domain gives that domain more opportunities to rank for related search queries and accrue inbound links, which, in turn, strengthens the authority of the domain as a whole.

Step 4: Set up your offsite content engine. If you don’t have time to participate on your Facebook page and Twitter account, then hire someone to do it for you. The title “Community Manager” is probably the fastest-growing job title right now due to the need for savvy social media marketers to manage a brand’s social presence. Don’t have budget for a full-time community manager? Hire a college intern. Most of today’s college students are very familiar with social media channels and how to effectively use them.

Step 5: Integrate your onsite and offsite content engines. Whenever a new blog post is published, announce it via your social channels. Similarly, encourage blog readers to join your social channels with social media “connect” buttons that enable readers to easily follow you on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+. Add social media “share” buttons so your blog content can easily be tweeted, shared on Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. Always use images in your blog posts so Pinterest users can pin your images.

Social signals have come a long way in terms of their impact on SEO over the course of the last two years. We’ve gone from asking whether or not social signals play a role in organic rankings, to conducting numerous scientific studies in an attempt to determine the exact correlation between each type of social signal.

While we still don’t know the true impact of social signals (which, admittedly, is probably a moving target depending on many factors), we do know that social signals are increasing in importance with regard to the ranking algorithm, and will continue to do so.

Danny Sullivan’s insight into a correlation between social signals and organic search rankings marked the beginning of a new era in SEO: social search. Brands that have embraced social media not only enjoy the ranking benefits due to the impact of social signals, but also increased conversion rates, brand loyalty, and word-of-mouth referrals.