I’d like to take a look at the way social media is having progressively more effect on search engine results. It’s a topic that has been gaining ground steadily over the past six months, since the Big Boys (Google and Bing) have revealed that they were starting to take social media into account.
Danny Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief of Search Engine Land, shook things up last December when he was the first to confirm that Bing and Google do factor social signals into their ranking. The finding was also confirmed shortly thereafter in a video reply by Matt Cutts at Google.
Sullivan mainly questioned Google and Bing about Facebook and Twitter. Guess which one came out on top? Sullivan writes:
In the end, it’s clear that Twitter data especially plays a role in web search, these days. Who you are is being understood. Are you a trusted authority or not? If there’s PageRank for pages, both search engines have a form of TwitterRank for people.
I found it extremely interesting that Twitter seems to be far more influential than Facebook. With 92% of social media users on Facebook and only 13% on Twittter, according to Pew Internet’s June 16 report, it seems that Twitter packs a more potent punch despite its smaller user base. This makes it ripe for abuse.
The thing to keep in mind is that search engines are onto spammy tactics. For instance, it’s pretty easy for them to sort out the instances where people are paying for retweets — a flood of links from accounts that have no real connection to the subject matter stands out.
Using Twitter as a ranking signal helps engines sort out bots and spammers, because social authority is being taken into account. Viewed analytically, there is a gulf of difference between those with true influence and those who game the system. As always, it comes down to a matter of content. Quality content always wins. No matter what, a trashy piece of content will never get shared on Twitter by true influencers.
Jen Lopez, community manager for SEOmoz, summarizes a few informal experiments on Twitter’s influence on search results. These are informal — not scientific studies — but the results do suggest that the volume of Tweets to a page can help it rank, and rank well, though they don’t take the issue of users’ authority into account.
Authority is a big issue for Facebook, since so much of its data cannot be crawled. This means that search engines have no real means of calculating user influence, leaving a gaping hole in their calculations.
Johnathan Allen, a writer for Search Engine Watch, has an interesting speculation on this:
If Google cannot calculate influence on Facebook, then it is missing a vital component of the online social graph. Arguably, to make Twitter updates carry more ‘value’ in the wider online eco-system is a way of forcing Facebook’s hand when it comes to access to their data — something Google has been after for a long time.
Currently, the only Facebook data Google and Bing can see are public Facebook pages and posts that people set to share with everyone. Everything else is opaque.
In the last couple months, in a move that should have surprised no one, Google dove into the act. While the company’s prior social efforts (anyone remember Buzz?) have been less than spectacular, it seems to be stepping up its game. Most Web surfers have become used to seeing Facebook’s “Like” button just about everywhere since it debuted. Now a wave of Google +1 buttons is hot on its heels.
Matt McGee did a great job of pulling the SEO-pertinent information from Google’s FAQ in his post on Search Engine Land. Let’s see what he round up:
A new +1 button FAQ explains this in more detail:
Content recommended by friends and acquaintances is often more relevant than content from strangers. For example, a movie review from an expert is useful, but a movie review from a friend who shares your tastes can be even better. Because of this, +1’s from friends and contacts can be a useful signal to Google when determining the relevance of your page to a user’s query. This is just one of many signals Google may use to determine a page’s relevance and ranking, and we’re constantly tweaking and improving our algorithm to improve overall search quality. For +1’s, as with any new ranking signal, we’ll be starting carefully and learning how those signals affect search quality.
That FAQ page also explains another SEO impact: The +1 button might get a page crawled or re-crawled:
Once you add the button, Google may crawl or recrawl the page, and store the page title and other content, in response to a +1 button impression or click.
Google already knows a lot about you and your network, especially if you have a Google profile. Each social media platform you link to your Google profile helps identify you to the Big G. This is how they know that @socialgumbo on Twitter is the same person behind the SocialGumbo Facebook page, and if you’ve filled out the XFN data when building the links, it also has a clear picture of the relationships involved.
At the moment, search engines are operating from an incomplete social graph. A lot of data is invisible to them due to privacy settings or platform protocols. Limited Facebook data is a major stumbling block. When you combine the size of its user base with the amount of data unseen by the engines, the picture becomes clear.
While there are ever more effective efforts to factor in the social graph, it must be noted that correlation does not imply causation. Just because a high number of Facebook “likes” or tweets correlate with a page ranking well, doesn’t mean that those social shares actually caused that page to rank well. High-quality content that is shared frequently is likely has a lot of backlinks, as well. Those links could ultimately be the reason it’s ranking well.
One thing remains certain: High-quality content is vital. Let’s face it, the good stuff gets shared socially. While that social sharing may not directly increase rankings, it does drive traffic, and capture mindshare. Good content also attracts links, which we know are a vital ranking factor.
As social becomes more and more integrated as a ranking signal, it won’t completely replace traditional link signals (though many types of links have been devalued due to the frequency with which they get gamed). Social media is just another signal, whose importance will probably continue to shift for awhile longer.
In the meantime, great content is your best strategy. And regardless of how Google and Bing value them, tweets, retweets, shares, and +1’s are all important factors in getting people’s eyes on your content.
What are your thoughts?
Source: “How Do Tweets Influence Search Rankings? An Experiment for a Cause,” Daily SEO Blog, 12/08/10
Source: “Matt Cutts, Social Signals, Author Authority, Ranking Factors & Google Realtime,” Search Engine Watch, 12/22/11
Source: “A Tweet’s Effect On Rankings – An Unexpected Case Study,” SEOmoz, 02/15/11
Source: “Exactly How Powerful Are Tweets & Retweets? Help Us Find Out!,” SEOmoz, 03/17/11
Source: “Why Search Engines Should Use Social Signals as Ranking Factors,” Search Engine Watch, 05/10/11
Source: “What are the most important search ranking factors?,” Econsultancy, 06/07/11
Source: “Does Google use data from social sites in ranking?,” YouTube.com, 02/2011
Source: “It’s Here: Google +1 Buttons For Websites,” Search Engine Land, 06/01/11
Image by y FindYourSearch (SEO), used under its Creative Commons license.
George "Loki" Williams is the community and brand manager for award wining game company Savage Mojo, Ltd. and the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content and online communications. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters, Kobold Press, and Kaiser Permanente. His work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, The Gambit Weekly, and NOLA.com, among others.