I filmed a video back in May 2010 where I said that we didn’t use “social” as a signal, and at the time, we did not use that as a signal, but now, we’re taping this in December 2010, and we are using that as a signal.
But the question really isn’t if social media affects SEO. It’s how it affects SEO.
The rise of Google’s social search feature
Now, before you think that the increased relevance of social search recommendations is some sort of a new craze resulting from the launch of the Google Plus social network, consider that Google launched the first version of its Google Social Search tool back in October 2009 and rolled the service out to all users in January 2010.
Look at the screenshot above from the launch. Danny Sullivan made a few interesting observations about this new functionality.
The first is that Google’s initial social search launch was rolled out as a separate tool and not as part of a full integration into a user’s main results page. In order to use the service, you needed to be logged in to your Google profile and actively access the “Social” feature in the navigation bar.
Danny also noted that the specific connections Google was using to populate its social results pages included blogs in your Google Reader, any contacts in your Gmail/Gchat accounts and any contacts you were connected to via profiles listed in your Google Profile. For example, if you were connected to a friend through Digg and had listed your Digg account within your Google Profile, that friend’s content could appear in your social search results.
The implications of Google social search
Fast forward to 2011. Not only are these social recommendations showing up on main search engine results pages, there’s evidence that they’re displacing results that would have been displayed based on traditional SEO. It’s also clear that an author’s authority on social networking sites is influencing traditional SEO.
Just for a minute, let’s consider the idea that social recommendations might shake up traditional search engine results pages through personalized search. Rand Fishkin conducted a test in which he compared the search results for “cupcake madness” while logged into his Google account and logged out. The results differed.
Do you know why the results were different? In the first image, the result from the Everywhereist blog showed up only because Rand’s wife was the owner of the site. Once he logged out, the result was replaced by the site that earned the third place spot through traditional SEO.
The effects of this change are huge because if you only invest in traditional SEO, you can be bumped from the search engine results in seconds. So, should you even worry about conventional SEO anymore? Do things like backlinks, keyword-optimized content and on-page optimization still matter?
Although those questions are important, answering them doesn’t take into account the full impact of the newly increased influence of social media on SEO. To do that, you need to look at how Google and other search engines are quantifying social networking authority as a ranking factor within the traditional search engine results page as well.
Author authority: The latest ranking factor?
On December 1st, 2010, Danny Sullivan interviewed Bing and Google representatives about how Facebook and Twitter may impact search engine rankings. One of the questions he asked was the weighing of Twitter users and links shared in their tweets.
Bing responded with:
We do look at the social authority of a user. We look at how many people you follow, how many follow you, and this can add a little weight to a listing in regular search results.
And Google responded with:
Yes, we do use [tweeted links and RTs] as a signal. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article.
And in response to the question, “Do you track links shared within Facebook, either through personal walls or fan pages?” the search engines had the following to say.
Yes. We look at links shared that are marked as “Everyone,” and links shared from Facebook fan pages.
And Google said:
We treat links shared on Facebook fan pages the same as we treat tweeted links. We have no personal wall data from Facebook.
Based on these answers, you can assume that social media plays a role in influencing the search engine results by giving preference based on the authority of the author and the number of times a piece of content is shared on social networking sites.
According to SEOMoz’s 2011 Search Engine Factors Ranking report, almost 132 SEO and social media experts predicted that social signals at the page and domain levels would have a greater impact on search engine rankings than traditional SEO factors.
Specific social media and search engine integrations
Of course, it’s one thing to know that social factors are increasingly affecting search engine rankings, but it’s another thing entirely to see what integrations are already in place and influencing result pages. By understanding exactly how the search engines use this data, you can come up with a marketing plan designed to rank in this new socially optimized world.
The following are the integrations currently in place between the search engines and each of the big 3 social media sites:
Although Facebook doesn’t make information stored on its personal profiles available for indexing, content shared on fan pages is fair game. In fact, according to an analysis of the data generated by TampaSEO, Facebook shares are one of the social signals most closely correlated with high search engine rankings:
And while the correlation doesn’t mean that Facebook shares by themselves lead to high rankings, it’s worth noting that Google and the other search engines also give preference to content shared on Facebook via annotated social search.
In the current Google Social Search implementation, content shared by Facebook contacts receives preferential positions in the search engine results and includes a picture of the person who shared it. By increasing the social proof of these results, Google increases the chances that this content will receive clicks.
One of the clearest integrations between social media and the search engines is the Twitter Search Engine on Bing. This tool enables you to search tweets in real-time from within the Bing search engine. And with the recent updates, tweets are now in the Bing News feed. Content “liked” by your Facebook and Twitter contacts also gets preferred treatment.
And while the ability to search for tweets via Bing may not send much traffic to your social networking profile, there’s evidence that tweets or retweets of links by legitimate users on Twitter can lead to a bump in traditional SEO rankings as well.
Jennifer Lopez did a case study showing that after a tweet introducing her Beginner’s Guide to SEO was retweeted by Smashing Magazine, she noticed an immediate impact in terms of both traffic and rankings for a previously un-tracked keyword.
As Chris Brogan said:
A social network made by Google impacts search.
It doesn’t get much clearer than that. As a social networking service, as well as a search giant, Google has all the data necessary to implement changes to the search engine results based on social media. For example, they could hypothetically use the data generated by webmasters using Google Analytics, Webmaster tools, or their toolbar, plus the data on the amount of traffic sent via social media sites by specific users. It’s not a big leap to assume that data from these services could be used to tie your website to authority social networking profiles and then increase your rankings.
And although evidence is difficult to come by as Google Plus is still new, you can already see the integration between the Google Plus network and the Google search engine result pages via social search annotations and the “+1” button that appears next to search results when you are logged into Google.
You need to get on with the times and start expanding your presence on social media sites instead of endlessly chasing the latest SEO tricks.
If you don’t believe me, just think about the following quote from Matt Cutts in his keynote at Pubcon 2010:
Don’t look at us where we are today, but look at the direction we are moving and what we are focusing on, the big five are the mobile web, local search, social, blended results in the search engine results and HTML5.
Social media is impacting search engine results, and if you want to get more traffic from search engines, you need to:
- Build an active, engaged presence on social networking sites – this isn’t exactly rocket science. If social media engagement is a new ranking factor, you simply can’t benefit if you are not there. If you haven’t already, now is the time to build profiles on these sites and invest time in connecting with your followers.
- Optimize your sites for social media sharing – if your sites are built on WordPress, installing a plugin like Sharebar to enable social sharing is something you have to do. Don’t rely on your users reading good content on your website and then taking the time to navigate to social networks to share it on their own. You have to provide them with the tools necessary to get the job done in the easiest way.
- Encourage your readers to share your content – smart marketers know that assuming people will take the action you want without you explicitly telling them to do so is a lost cause. You have to use strong calls to action in your posts, encouraging readers to share your content via social networks if they found it useful.
And, most importantly, this doesn’t mean you should give up on traditional SEO. In March 2010, The Register reported that only 20% of searches on Google were personalized, and although that number is growing, there’s no way it’ll account for 100% of all internet searches.
There will always be people who hate social networking or refuse to build Google Profile. These people will only ever see the traditional search engine results, so you still need to follow all of the best practices of regular SEO.
There’s no doubt that traditional SEO is slowly fading in importance when you compare it with the new social optimization indicators. So, if you aren’t yet active in the social media world, you’d better start running because you don’t have time to walk.
How do you think social media will impact SEO over the next year?
P.S. If you want help growing your social media channels click here.