Social signals are human interaction metrics on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Medium, etc. Some examples of social signals are: likes, dislikes, shares, votes, pins, views, etc. which commonly help to showcase popularity and affinity for a specific piece of content.
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.
We’re still trying to figure out just how strong of a role social signals play in organic SEO rankings: multiple studies 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?
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 an interview 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.
What’s the future of social signals with regard to SEO ?
In two years, companies playing in competitive niches that don’t have a robust social strategy will be left in the dust by those that do; Social signals are becoming the new “link” in terms of overall importance in the ranking algorithm. While I don’t believe the value of links as a ranking signal will ever completely disappear, I do believe that direct and indirect impacts of social signals will eventually surpass links as the most valuable ranking factor.
Why ? Several reasons:
- The world is becoming more social. Today’s kids are tomorrow’s consumers, and they are being raised communicating on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. As this generation ages, more consumers will spend more time on social media channels, likely causing an increase in social signals as those consumers interact with their favorite brands on the Web. People already spend more time on social networks than on search engines, and the gap will continue to grow.
- People are more likely to trust a website recommended personally by their friends than by a search engine. Websites with a strong social presence are more easily shareable and accessible, and thus easier to recommend. Search engines optimization can also analyze these shares as recommendations, boosting the credibility (and rankings) of the website.
- Websites with a strong social presence have better conversion rates and brand loyalty, leading to more sales, more word-of-mouth referrals, and greater brand awareness, which all lead to more positive reviews and inbound links.
Google expanded on this idea beyond just Twitter and Facebook by implementing Google Authorship, which allows Google First Page to track authors across domains and assign authority and credibility to their content, allowing that content to not only rank higher in search engines for certain queries, but also pass more value to the outbound links contained within.
As Google gains more data on what authors are big players in each various industry/niche, I expect AuthorRank to play a more significant role in rankings. Strategic moves like Google+, Authorship tools, and AuthorRank indicate a careful and cautious approach towards “social search ranking.”
Onsite elements include:
- Share buttons (like, recommend, tweet, bookmark, etc.)
- Connect buttons (Like a Facebook page, Follow on Twitter, Follow on LinkedIn, etc.)
- A blog
Offsite elements include:
- Facebook page
- Twitter account
- LinkedIn company page
- Pinterest account
- Youtube account
- Guest blog posting
- Other social media platforms
Social signals have come a long way in terms of their impact on SEO over the course of the last two years. We’ve gone from asking whether or not social signals play a role in organic rankings, to conducting numerous scientific studies in an attempt to determine the exact correlation between each type of social signal. SEO Agency .
While we still don’t know the true impact of social signals (which, admittedly, is probably a moving target depending on many factors), we do know that social signals are increasing in importance .