Your Guide to Social Signals for SEO
Social signals are the comments people leave on blog posts, the Facebook likes and the Google+ 1′s, the Twitter tweets and other interactive activity. Here’s a great article that discusses what social signals are and why they are so important to help drive organic traffic.
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: multiplestudies 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+)
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 aninterview 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.