The Social Signals Debate

Getting good people to say good things about your business is nothing new.
But now social signals can – and should – be deliverable KPIs for your business and your SEO.

Don’t be frozen out of this hot topic…

Few SEO issues are as keenly debated as the use of social signals. Since Google’s admission in December 2010 that it had begun to integrate some level of social media analysis into its rank metrics, speculation has been rising as to what form this inclusion takes, how significant it is, what calibration occurs, and what the future holds for social signals as a qualifier of search engine credibility.

Commentary and analysis so far has shed more heat than light. Google pops up now and again with a vague update, but the area remains grey and inconclusive – which, let’s face it, is very stimulating for SEO dialogue not normally known for its cliffhangers, resulting in some crazy, hyperbolic doom-mongering about the ‘death of SEO’.

Soap operas aside, the prevailing thought is that (a) social signals are important to page ranking; (b) this importance is on the rise; (c) they are more valuable to ranking than less than some types of backlinks; (d) they’re definitely here to stay. When asked what the biggest change to search ranking factors will be over the next couple of years, Rob Ousbey of Distilled didn’t hesitate to reply that “the integration of social signals will be more impactful than we could have anticipated”.

So what do we know for sure?

  • Social signals constitute 8 – 10% of both Google and Bing’s search algorithms
  • Sites optimised for social signals seem to get better rankings. Studies by Social Metrics Pro found that the top 10% most optimized sites attracted 360% more traffic with 410% more keywords being ranked
  • Google is moving towards being a “search engine that understands not only content, but also people and relationships”, with personalisation, Google+, Search plus Your World and other measures
  • Google updates signaled a shift away from traditional SEO backlink approaches towards content and interaction-based measurement

What Are Social Signals?
In short – YOU. What sites do you recommend? Which articles do you like? How many times do you share a blog link? How do you share things, and with whom? Social signals are the votes of confidence that users give sites through social media such as:

  • Facebook Likes and Shares
  • Twitter – number of followers, tweets, retweets
  • ‘+1s’ on Google+
  • Social bookmarking sites like Stumbleupon, Reddit, Delicious, Digg
  • Posting / referencing content on a blog

Social signals are the result of the Internet’s evolution from being a dichotomy of content providers and content readers, to a mercurial trinity of providers, readers and participants. Readers, given a voice through social networking, are now able to break with passivity and play a prime role in shaping content, influencing online interaction and conditioning the way companies do business online.

Why Are Social Signals Important?
We all like to seek out recommendations from people we know, and the more authoritative they are or the more we like them already, the more we trust their recommendations. Google functions in the same way. For instance, say your company wrote an article and Tweeted the link. When your followers retweet that link, it sends social signals to Google that your content is valuable and trustworthy. A high volume of retweets would impact on your overall online reputation, as would the calibre of the person referencing you. So if a super-high-quality site, like Forbes, retweeted you, Google would be very impressed.

Google’s list of factors necessary for a site to be called high quality includes: the trustworthiness of the information; the calibre of the author and depth of the article; the ‘recommendability’ of the content.

Social signals have always been important for marketing. Getting good people to say good things about your business is nothing new. But now they can – and should – be measurable, deliverable KPIs for your business and your SEO. Search engines have begun to absorb them into their algorithms for ranking, potentially ushering in a new era for search and SEO in general. The integration is both explicit – personalised search pages when you are logged into your networks (like Gmail or Twitter) – and implicit – behind-the-scenes measurement of social data to calculate ranking…

1) SERP Personalisation
Personalisation is not new – log in to Google and see your search results change. This impacts rankings as they appear to you; not overall SERP scores. Google is saying, ‘People you know like these sites’ – not necessarily ‘We at Google like these sites’.

Of course, this is still great for your business. Get more people discussing, sharing or liking your business and their online activity may rub off on other people in their networks. The grey issue however, concerns non-personalised search rankings…

2) Page Authority
There are two facts here:
(i) Google ranks on trust
(ii) The more people share/ like a page, the more the content could be deemed trustworthy

But is there a correlation? And if so, how significant? Consider also these two statements:
(i) Ostriches are birds
(ii) Birds can fly
Therefore ostriches can fly. Right?

Until the Google process around social signals is transparent, this will remain up for debate. Studies conducted by Searchmetrics and SEOMoz (amongst others) demonstrate a persuasive correlation between social activity and Google ranking; however it is worth applying the same caveats as the SEOMoz team:

  • Correlation is NOT causation – these features may indeed be directly influencing Google’s ranking algorithm, but they also may just be features that high ranking pages tend to have…”
  • “Results are likely [to be] overly simplistic…Google + Bing…may have arrangements enabling them to look far deeper into the signals that make a tweet or share authentic…”

Which Social Signals Have the Biggest Impact?
1. Twitter
Twitter receives a lot of attention in this debate, especially since Google cited retweets as one of the signals they use in organic and news rankings. A study exploring ranking and retweet volume by Branded3 indicated a strong correlation – 7,500+ retweets might get you on the first page of Google. Twitter’s addition of the ‘Discover’ feature, harnessing individual preferences to tailor streams, shows the site’s increasing move towards personalisation. Useful metrics within Twitter could include: number of followers, follower/following ratio, tweet frequency, retweet volume, and authority of the retweeter.

2. Facebook
Facebook has an uncertain role in this debate. Its user reach is undeniable and SEOMoz research suggests a correlation between Likes and ranking position. However, Facebook remains an island in the great cyber-sea, and if Google can’t crawl it, they can’t readily assign Pagerank. As Matt Cutts explains: “If for some reason a page is forbidden for us to crawl or we are not able to obtain it somehow, then we wouldn’t be able to use that within our rankings”.

 

3. Google+
You’d assume that a social network designed by the dominating search engine would tie in quite nicely to this discussion…however, Cutts recently stated that +1s aren’t the best quality signal right now because it is still “early days.” But let’s look to the future. From a user point of view, Google+ has the potential to produce the most powerful social signals. We anticipate the coming year will see the rise of Google+ and the demise of Facebook – at the very least for B2B and B2C sharing. We tend to advise most clients to ditch Facebook – the amount of businesses with dormant Facebook pages is alarming – and start building momentum on Google+.

Links vs Social Signals – Does it Have to be Either/Or?
To slip into cowboy parlance, the Internet is a pretty big town and there’s enough room out there for the both of us. Matt Cutts echoed this by drawing parallels with the Douglas Adams’ quote,Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

There has been much commentary about the death of backlinks – a sort of SEO apocalypse – but Cutts continues: “There’s a perception that everything will go social and links are completely obsolete, but it’s premature to reach that conclusion. I don’t doubt in ten years time things will be more social and those will be more powerful signals, but I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links just yet.”

Having said that, we all know backlink-times-are-a-changing. Optimisation changes have combatted unethical SEO, but links are far from dead; high quality content, linked on high calibre sites, will still support your SEO growth strategy.

What does this mean for your business?
You need to invest in a social signals strategy. You may already be doing this without realising. After all, it is obtained at its simplest by:

CONTENT STRATEGY + SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGY = SOCIAL SIGNALS STRATEGY

In a nutshell, your focus should be on quality content creation and dissemination. Everyone needs to be a publisher. We advise all of our clients to get talking, enter the blogosphere. Then get on Twitter and Google+ and get talking some more.

Your content strategy will include blogging, guest posting, research, white papers, webinars, videos, press releases – any content, as long as it is relevant, high quality and aimed at your target audience. Make sure all content has social networking built in – options for people to share, like or +1 – and has follow links to your site. Make the most of every piece of content: one piece of research could turn into a video, press release, bunch of unique guest articles, an interview, and an infographic. Trickle them out across your networks to maximise your social media leverage. Identify, and target, the sources of social media influence and try to establish links with high worth network users.

Other important things to do…
(All of these things are worth doing anyway – regardless of whether they have a huge impact on your ranking or not)

1) Your website
Integrate all your online channels into your site and build in signposting. Make it easy for visitors to find – and use – your social networks. Add a Twitter stream to hook them in. Get a social commenting plug-in for people to share their feedback. Incorporate sharing tools into all content creation, to make it easy for visitors to share.

2) Your audience
Rethink who you are talking to. Extending your reach through social channels means expanding the scope of your personas. Find new demographics. Engage in social listening. See where you could be missing out

3) Competitor analysis
What networks are your competitors involved in? What volume of social signals are they generating? Do they have their channels embedded on their homepage? Who are they following, what content are they sharing and who is paying attention to them?

4) Authorship mark-up
You must let Google know you are the author of your original content. It lends authority to your content, deters scrapers from muscling in and looks more appealing on the search page (the author’s picture can appear next to the result). Use rich snippets to see what author data Google can glean from your site. This is all important because Google has identified Authorship MarkUp as a ranking metric: “We know that great content comes from great authors, and we’re looking closely at ways this markup could help us highlight authors and rank search results.”

The 8 Dangers of Over-Hyping Social Signals
We like to think conservatively about the debate using the 8 S’s…

  • Stability: Social networks are as up and down as skirt lengths. Trendy ones fall out of popularity, the functionality of more established channels is in constant development and there’s always a new kid on the block. How could search engines rely on such unstable data long-term?
  • Sincerity: How genuine are social signals really? How could something that is so easy to manipulate be taken seriously by Google long-term?
  • Susceptibility: As an indicator of trust, social media is just as vulnerable to unethical SEO as blackhat linking, but Google will be relatively powerless to do much about it.
  • Scalability: Reliance on third party data and metrics would surely compromise search scalability?
  • Sentiment: People tend to share high quality, relevant information – but not always. What if a page has been shared because it is so BAD? Would a retweet, edited to say ‘this is rubbish’, still count? Can Google incorporate sentiment analysis?
  • Searchability: Could signals be harvested from closed systems like Facebook?
  • Subjectivity: Personalisation is all very well; but do we want to see results so tailored to our existing tastes? If search engines lose their objectivity, we risk receiving monotone results that do nothing to challenge or expand our minds.
  • Security: Online privacy will always be a hot potato, with some users resistant to their information being used for personalisation or stored for search purposes.

Get Ahead – Get Social
Social signals are over-inflated, over-hyped and over-theorised. But they mustn’t be overlooked.
Social signals are set to play a key role in the rise of one search trend that can be quantified – and cannot be ignored. By 2014, mobile Internet search will overtake desktop Internet search, and social signals will take on a whole new potency…

  • 91% of mobile internet use is social;
  • Half of the 200 million active Twitterers are on mobile devices (up from 25%);
  • Over 200 million people use Facebook on mobile devices
  • The rise of the reviewing culture will explode with increased mobile usage – reviews of shops, products, services shaping retail both on and offline

Regardless of SEO ranking power, embracing social signals as part of your online marketing strategy just makes sense: cost-effective, 24/7 marketing, potentially bottomless customer outreach and instant reputation-building at the click of a mouse. Social signals will only increase in power; don’t be left behind.

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