Quicksprout recently published an awesome new infographic on the state of SEO that illustrates how the field has evolved over the past few years in response to Google’s game-changing algorithm updates and the steady rise of content as king.
The infographic illustrates findings from Econsultancy’s State of Search Marketing Report 2013, in which 74% of companies and 82% of agencies surveyed said that social media is either somewhat or highly integrated into their SEO strategy.
In a cruel twist of fate, just two months after Econsultancy collected the data for its report, Google’s Matt Cutts released a video saying that social signals––metrics such as Facebook likes and Twitter followers, which indicate a profile’s authority and influence––do not affect search rankings.
This statement threw marketers for a loop; they had been operating under the assumption (understandably so––more on that below) that social signals were factored into Google’s search algorithm as an indication of trustworthiness and quality.
For this article I decided to dive deeper into what Cutts’ statement meant for the relationship between social and SEO and learn how SEO-focused marketers are thinking about social media now that social signals are out of the picture, at least for now. Let’s start with some more background information on the dialogue around social and SEO over the past few years.
A Bit of History
As I mentioned above, Cutts’ statement that Google does not look at social signals when determining the rank of a webpage came as a big surprise to the online marketing industry. After all, in a video published in December 2010, Cutts himself said that social signals were a factor in ranking.
In this video Cutts refers viewers to Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Watch article for which Sullivan had spoken directly with Bing and Google in order to learn how the two search engines look at social signals as a ranking factor.
Both search engines told Sullivan that who you are as a person on Twitter can impact how well a page does in regular web search.
A variety of studies, including SearchMetrics’ Rank Correlation for 2013 and the case studies outlined in this infographic from Quicksprout, gave additional weight to the idea that search engines look to social signals when ranking a webpage. So you can understand why marketers were dismayed and a little annoyed when, three years later, Google told them nope, sorry guys, we actually don’t look at that stuff right now.
Despite all this back-and-forth, Neil Patel, SEO expert and founder of Quicksprout, recently urged marketers not to discount social’s impact on SEO too quickly; he thinks that social is the new SEO, and his argument is pretty convincing.
Why does Patel think that social is the new SEO, and how are other marketers integrating social into their SEO strategy? I dove into researching this subject and identified 5 key things every marketer should know about how social media impacts SEO in 2014 (going into 2015).
My research also left me with a few questions, which I mention throughout the post; I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
5 Things to Think About When Considering The Impact of Social on SEO
1. Social Links May or May Not Boost Your Search Rank
Okay, social signals pertaining to a profile’s authority are out, but does Google consider links published on social accounts to be credible backlinks? When a blog post goes viral on Twitter, do those new links boost the post’s search ranking?
Today, links are mainly achieved through developing original content that is in turn, shared across social media. Links to your content on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube and other social networks help the search engines understand what websites are credible and should be ranked for what keyword phrases.
In Danny Sullivan’s 2010 interview with Google and Bing for Search Engine Watch, Google first says that it doesn’t incorporate the number of times a link has been tweeted into their search rank algorithm, and then it goes on to say that it does (doh). Bing says that it definitely looks at this data:
We take into consideration how often a link has been tweeted or retweeted, as well as the authority of the Twitter users that shared the link.
While Cutts’ 2014 video is crystal-clear about the absence of social signals from the search algorithm, he does say that Google crawls social websites for data in the same way that it would any other site:
Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index, and 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.
This leads me to think that while the authority of a social account doesn’t impact search rank, links published on social media could be marked as credible back-links and thus influence a page’s rank.
Takeaways: When Cutts made his statement about Google not factoring in social signals I understood him to mean clues about a particular company’s authority on social media, which, for me, is distinct from the number of times a page has been linked to on social media. Further research didn’t help me get much clarity on this point.
If there are any SEO experts reading this, I’d love for you to chime in below in the comments.
2. Social Media Profiles Rank in Search Engines
While social shares may or may not affect a webpage’s position in search listings, your social profiles definitely influence the content of your search results. In fact, social media profiles are often amongst the top results in search listings for brand names. When I searched “General Electric” in Google, the company’s Instagram and Pinterest profiles appeared as the 5th and 6th listings, respectively, and Twitter was the 8th result.
Social channels can feel more personal than webpages, and they’re a great way to get a sense of a company’s personality off the bat. When I’m researching a company I don’t know much about I typically go straight to their Twitter or Facebook page. So if a social account shows up at the top of the search results, I’m just as likely to click on it as I would be to click on their website.
Takeaway: There’s no doubt that your social profiles matter to Google and especially to people who are looking for you online. A few active social channels can make the experience of getting to know your brand online more fun, engaging and personal. Also, while some may consider Google+ a non-essential social channel, marketers shouldn’t discount the fact that a company’s Google+ profile is one of the first things a searcher will see (and potentially click on). As such, it pays to have a profile with up-to-date info and engaging content.
3. Social Media Channels Are Search Engines, Too
Nowadays, people don’t just go to Google and Bing to look stuff up; they also use social media channels to find what they’re looking for. Patel makes this point in his article on why social is the new SEO: “We need to understand that search engine optimization includes the search that happens on social media search engines.”
This works in a couple of ways: First, if you’re active on Twitter, it’s entirely possible that people will discover your company’s new content distribution app after searching for content marketing-related tweets with Twitter’s search engine. Likewise, brands that lend themselves to beautiful visual content can benefit from making their content visible in Pinterest and Instagram by using hashtags and properly categorizing their pins.
Moreover, as mentioned in point #1, if someone wants to check out your company, they’re likely to open Twitter and Facebook and do a quick search to see what kind of presence you have on each channel. YouTube, and, of course, Google+ are also search engines.
The recently revamped Instagram search engine
Here are some impressive stats that illuminate just how much people are using social media to search:
- As of 2010, Twitter handled 19 billion search queries a month (that’s more than 5x the queries handled by Bing!).
- In 2012 Facebook said it got around one billion search queries per day.
- As of March 2010, YouTube got roughly 3.7 billion search queries a month. Also, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, making it one of the largest content repositories on the web.
Takeaways: Companies should expand their concept of SEO to include not just the traditional search engines––Google and Bing––but also social search engines.
When searching for a brand on Facebook or Twitter it’s not uncommon to see several different profiles pop up, and it’s not always clear which one is the real deal. Marketers need to ensure that it’s super easy for users to identify their official social profiles.
This may mean deleting duplicate accounts and/or clearly labeling each social account so that users understand what purpose they serve (for example, accounts for HR or press versus general brand pages).
4. Not Now Doesn’t Mean Not Ever
Just because Google says that social signals don’t currently impact search rank doesn’t mean they never will. Social media shows no sign of becoming a less important part of a brand or person’s online presence anytime soon; moreover, given that link-building strategies like guest blogging have become a less reliable way to indicate the quality of a webpage, it makes sense that search engines would begin to look for other signals of authority and value.
Takeaways: There’s no reason why social signals won’t begin to affect search rankings in the future, so smart brands will continue to build their authority in key social channels and think about social when designing their SEO strategy.
5. Don’t Forget Bing
Google may have back-tracked and changed their stance on social signals, but I haven’t found any evidence that what Bing told Sullivan for his Search Engine Watch interview doesn’t hold true today.
Remember, Bing said:
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.
Takeaways: Bing, which is the second most-used search engine, has been crystal clear about how their algorithm incorporates social signals into their search results, and, unlike Google, they haven’t flip-flopped on the issue. With its market share steadily growing, companies would be wise to include Bing in their SEO strategies.
Cutts’ claim that Google’s search algorithm ignores social signals should not be seen as an invitation for marketers to dismiss social’s impact on SEO. Instead, marketers should broaden their concept of search and SEO to take into account the myriad ways that people find content on the web. They also need to think about the positive effects that increased traffic from social can potentially have on their search rankings as well as the prominence of social profiles on first-page search results.
Ultimately, the web is all about building relationships, fostering audiences, expressing identity and sharing ideas––it’s inherently social, and there’s no reason that SEO best practices would go against the grain, especially since the rules that govern SEO are ultimately meant to make the web a more enjoyable and useful place.
Okay, your turn: How else do you think social affects SEO?
About the Author: Chloe Mason Gray specializes in digital marketing and growth strategy for small businesses and solopreneurs. Be sure to say hi to her on Twitter.