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How Social Signals Actually Do Help Your Search Rankings

Digital marketing thought leaders believe within the next few years, search engines will have figured out the best ways to incorporate social media activity as a ranking factor. At the moment, there's so much content going up and so many interactions taking place on the big social networks that Google and their peers, for the most part, have been taking the conservative route; indexing social activity selectively and long after it takes place.

How Social Impacts Search Engine Rankings

On the other hand, Facebook's been around for over ten years now. Twitter, LinkedIn and a few other major players launched shortly thereafter. It only makes sense that Google would start incorporating social signals into its search algorithms by now.

It's high time inbound marketers stopped thinking about social and search as completely distinct channels for acquiring audience members and leads.

Here's a quick briefing on the complex considerations that are shaping this ongoing change, together with some intelligence on where we are today along the path towards the true intertwining of social and search.

Follow me; don't follow me

Backlinks used to be the most influential ranking factor, but Google has been slowly deemphasizing links in their complex algorithms over time. Thanks to the search giant's ongoing crackdowns on the influence of "webspam," those sites who once made lots of money selling links to search engine optimization professionals but provided no actual value to visitors.

Regardless, links posted on social media are automatically tagged by the networks as “no follow,” which lets Google know that they're not intended to influence rankings. The "no follow" parameter causes many marketers to erroneously assume these links have no significance for SEO.

However, studies show that Google is indeed paying attention to "social signals," regardless of the "no follow" limitations.

Feeding an organic ecosystem

Let's keep in mind that Google's webspam witch-hunt is part of a wider story. Google's search users don’t want results from websites that invested the most in optimization; we want to see the most helpful and relevant results for our search queries. This is, after all, what Google wants to deliver.

A portfolio of strong backlinks was never the right goal. SEO was always a means to maximizing your content's accessibility among the right people.

All too often, active "link building" meant seeding links in places no one sees. Links like these might have had some effect on your SEO, but they likely never brought in new visitors and customers. Audience growth comes as a result of active social media engagement and building real connections with an audience. Social media is where the relevant conversations take place.

If an audience member likes what you've posted enough to link to it unprompted, this is true SEO gold! Focusing on providing social media value and letting the links come organically creates a holistic digital presence for your brand that is more natural and therefore higher in quality. This is exactly what Google is looking for when determining how to rank web pages for search results.

It makes sense, then, that the digital brands most active on social media are dominating search too. These are the brands that "get it," which means their audiences are naturally going to click, share, and repost. In turn, this means Google will notice too.

This is why we see so many studies pointing to correlations between social engagement and search rankings. Matt Cutts, the man tasked with Google's webspam detection, is adamant that this correlation does not demonstrate causation.

Optimizing for the fire hose

If timeliness is key to your marketing message, consider optimizing for "real time search." Google's fire hose access agreement with Twitter (to include tweets in search results within seconds of their having been tweeted) has expired.

However, Google does show real time results from other social media sites, first and foremost Google Plus. In order to distinguish itself from Google, Bing has made social search a cornerstone of its differentiation strategy, displaying real time activity well beyond the tweet, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare and more.

With social media only gaining momentum in its potential for influence, new, powerful, free search tools dedicated to monitoring conversations as they happen are cropping up all the time.

Plenty of search within the networks

It’s important to remember that many searches don’t take place on any of the major search engines. Aside from searches on Google, Yahoo and Bing, millions of searches are being conducted on social media sites every day.

The world's second-largest search engine? None of the above. It's actually YouTube, the world's leading social network for sharing videos.

But Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube searches are just the tip of the iceberg. When you post on social media, consider optimizing for that site’s search algorithm so users can find you by keyword and not just by name.

On Twitter, this means focusing on hashtags and posting consistency. For Google Plus, your authorship is an important factor. Use titles with keywords for YouTube videos, and place keywords in the first few words of your Facebook posts.

Conclusion

SEO is not just about acquiring a high volume of backlinks anymore. It’s about creating a holistic web presence that provides value. Building an active and engaged community on social media helps users find you, which, in turn, leads to more links, a bigger audience and increased conversions.

Google's continued quest for maximized relevance in search results doesn't necessitate waiting until its experiments with social signals are complete. Inbound marketers would be wise to start thinking about social media marketing as no longer being completely distinct from SEO.

As the search engines pay more attention over time to social signals, inbound marketers need to be doing the same.

Written by Ben Jacobson / September 8, 2014

A content and social media marketing specialist, Ben Jacobson joined the Lean Labs team in the summer of 2014. Ben has been active as a digital branding professional since the early days of social media, having overseen projects for brands including MTV, National Geographic, Zagat and Wix. His writing has appeared in Social Media Explorer, Search Engine Journal, Techwyse and the Mad Mimi Blog. Ben resides just south of the Carmel Mountain ridge in Israel with his dashing wife and two sprightly descendants.

Articles by Ben Jacobson