At the turn of 2012, the SEO industry was rife with predictions heralding a new dawn in which authoritative signals from trusted social networks would have a huge impact on rankings.
Since then, various studies have attempted to prove that Google is indeed using social signals to affect rankings, factoring signals such as Tweets, Facebook Likes and LinkedIn Shares into an algorithm that has for a long time been focussed heavily around the number of inbound links to a page.
At Branded3, we carried out the world’s largest, most comprehensive study on the effect of Tweets vs Rankings earlier this year. Through the analysis of over 8,500 URLs and the many thousands of Tweets those links received, we established a clear trend in the way Google gives a boost in SERPS to links that are Tweeted out.
Though it would be nigh on impossible to prove a direct, causational link between Tweeted URLs and subsequent rankings, the study showed a trend that is strong and clear enough to add significant momentum to a discussion that is gathering pace around the web – the discussion about why social media is essential to SEO.
In the last 18 months, SEO practitioners who had been building links through techniques such as article marketing – the spinning and re-spinning of high volumes of low-quality content – and paid link building have seen their efforts laid to waste by algorithm updates. Many have had to go back to the drawing board in search of new ways to bring about a boost in rankings for their clients.
Slowly but surely, the SEO industry seems to be arriving at the same conclusions, which include:
• The only links Google and other search engines will never devalue are those that are completely natural.
• People only link to high quality content.
• The most effective way of attracting links to high quality content is to create a buzz about your content on the social web.
But the impact of social media goes much further than simply disseminating good content and driving links.
Because search engines crawl the conversations happening on social channels, it is essential that brands are not only creating great content, but also engaging actively in the communities most relevant to their industry. Simply making your site linkable through the creation of interesting, usable content is not enough – brands must ensure that they are being talked about and their content is being shared in order to gleam the SEO benefit that strong, authoritative social signals can provide.
Google is getting better at recognising meaningful social signals
Various studies, such as this excellent piece by Tom Anthony at SEOmoz, have suggested that Google’s algorithm takes into account authorship on websites and authority on social media channels. In short, you will benefit far more if your content is being read, talked about, and shared by people with a relevant, authoritative online profile than if it is being passed around by just any old person.
This hammers home the point about online communities. Brands might dream about the content on their website ‘going viral’ and driving millions of visitors, but there is a much more realistic, achievable benefit to be gleamed from targeting an engaged, receptive audience with high quality, optimised, sharable content.
Look to the future – a blend of search and social
The launch of Google’s ‘Search, plus your World’ update at the start of 2012 was the first clear sign that the social web would form an integral part of SEO’s future.
As soon as Google started incorporating personal results, social profiles, and social pages into search results, it was clear that anyone attempting to optimise their own website would need to consider their social media presence very carefully. The importance of brands having a strong, managed presence on Google+ should certainly not be underestimated, if recent studies are to be believed.
The reason for the swing towards social signals is trust. Google and other search engines can no longer rely on links alone as an indication of authority. Since people began paying for links, Google has been looking for a way to differentiate between trustworthy links and less trustworthy links – and social signals facilitate just that.
While links remain central to Google’s algorithm, and will continue to do so, the challenge for SEO practitioners is to get links and shares from relevant, high authority sources. By doing this, brands can build strong, trustworthy links that are supported by social signals that confirm their relevancy to search engines.
Moving forward, it is likely that people’s searching habits will lean more and more towards social channels as they increasingly trust and value recommendations from friends over search engines. Some have speculated that in future, searching will take place largely within social channels as the demand increases for information to be gathered in one place.
Where we are now
Social signals first started to appear on the search radar around the end of 2010 and some will argue that their influence on SERPs can still be manipulated. But with every new study released, it becomes more apparent that the long term beneficiaries will be brands, companies and individuals who are building a strong presence in social media communities through quality content, trusted links and an authoritative social presence.