Anticipating trends in Google’s complex search algorithms is the holy grail of search engine marketing — and for years, many online marketers have operated under the assumption that social media signals play an increasingly vital role in building page rankings.
Are they right?
The answer to this question is less clear than you think. On the “yes” side, you’ll find deeply knowledgeable Web analysts and marketing specialists who claim the most compelling data is in their corner. On the “no” side is Google, stating more than once that social media doesn’t play a direct role in search engine rankings. If you believe Google to be a simple, straightforward company, then the search giant’s denials might be the only answer you need. But the evidence to the contrary is compelling, significant and impossible to ignore.
So what should you believe? Just how effectively can sites like Twitter and Facebook help marketers build their rankings, if at all? And how deeply should you venture down the social media rabbit hole to improve the rankings for your business? Knowledge is power in all facets of online marketing, so we’ll answer these questions by breaking down each side of this issue.
YES: Social Signals Cause Improved Rankings
The prevailing view among many online marketing experts is that Facebook and Twitter do play a role in search rankings. In many cases, marketers have found that liking or sharing Facebook posts, tweeting or retweeting links and +1ing posts on Google+ seems to benefit page rankings. And these benefits don’t appear to be marginal; according to a 2013 study by Searchmetrics, Google’s algorithms valued Google+ and Facebook shares as being more important for rankings than backlinks, which are historically the bread and butter of search engine marketing.
Two interesting case studies attempted to provide more definitive answers regarding the importance of social media signals in Google. The first study, by Shrushti.com, attempted to use social media to rank a page containing the keyword “Argos Voucher Codes March 2013.” At first, the page they were using (which had just two lines of duplicate content) was ranked in the 400th position for its keyword query. After a few days, their page jumped to the top of the rankings in Google.co.uk — without using backlinks.
The next important study was by Moz.com, which produced a beginner’s SEO guide that was referenced in a tweet by Smashing Magazine. Almost immediately, the guide soared in the search rankings for the keyword term “beginner’s guide,” and Moz.com enjoyed a week-long slug of organic traffic.
A larger-scale test was done by TastyPlacements, an Austin-based SEO firm. TastyPlacements created six websites that emulated businesses in six similarly sized cities. Each website was in the same niche, and their domains were all structured identically. After being online for 10 months, TastyPlacements started marketing five of the websites using different social media signals; the sixth website was left as a control site.
What the study found was astonishing: One website jumped 14.63 percent in the rankings after getting 100 followers to a linked Google+ business page, and another rose 9.44 percent after getting 300 Google+ “plus one” votes. The site marketed on Facebook rose 6.9 percent after getting 70 Facebook shares and 50 likes on its business page. Two of the sites were marketed on Twitter; one got a 2.88 percent bump with 50 tweets and retweets, while the other site saw a rankings drop by 1.22 percent after doing nothing more than gaining followers. The control site that wasn’t pushed on social media experienced virtually no change in its rankings.
So, what does this all mean? It means that, somehow, social media signals do appear to translate to better search engine rankings. But is this really a direct cause-and-effect relationship?
NO: Social Signals Don’t Cause Better Rankings
Whether it’s the honest truth or a smokescreen, Google officials have repeated that social signals aren’t responsible for changes in search engine rankings. The most recent admission was in August 2015, when Google webmaster trends analyst John Mueller was asked about this during a Google hangout session.
“Not directly, no,” was his answer.
There are legitimate reasons to believe Google’s insistence despite data that appears to show otherwise. First, consider the logistics of plugging social signals into Google’s algorithms. Google treats each Facebook and Twitter post as its own Web page, and indexing and periodically reviewing the flood of daily posts would exceed even Google’s vast capabilities. Also, Google’s bots can’t always crawl all posts on Facebook and Twitter, and verifying the quality of social media signals is much more difficult than gauging the quality of websites that provide backlinks.
Second — and this is important — the reason for the correlation between social signals and search rankings may be more correlative than causative. In other words, maintaining an active social media presence may simply build brand awareness and bring more relevant visitors to your website. The result of this would likely be an improvement in traditional SEO signals such as more backlinks and higher organic clickthrough rates.
The moral of the story? Good things happen when you’re active in social media.
Social media is simply too important to overlook. If social media signals aren’t already directly impacting your search engine rankings — and data suggests they could be — then it won’t be long before they do.
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