The Dirty Secret about Social Media and SEO

In the search community, there is a huge myth circulating. It is commonly believed that the more social signals you have on your site, the better your SEO.

In other words, if you have four hundred thousand followers on Twitter, you’ll do better in the search rankings than if you had twelve followers.

This is either true, or it’s not true.

So, I want to ask the question, and make it very clear what the answer is.

Question:  Do social signals impact SEO?

Answer:  No, they don’t.

This is a big deal. Since 2010, it has been believed that bigger social followings have a concomitant impact upon positive search results.

This is a serious misunderstanding.

From reputable sites and big-name experts, the advice has been consistent:  Social signals impact your search results.

social signals improve search ranking - Google Search 2014-04-09 08-02-03

The propagation of this information is completely understandable. Apparently, at one time, social signals did have an impact on search rankings. But now? Not so much.

I imagine that if you’re a digital marketer, you place some degree of importance upon social. That’s good. Please, don’t let go of your social media efforts on account of what I share with you below.

First, I’m going to explain why social media signals are not a ranking factor. This is the dirty secret about social. Then, I’m going to share why I think that social is still an extremely important part of digital marketing and SEO.

 

The Dirty Secret:  Social Signals Are Not an SEO Factor.

Before I explain the misunderstanding, let’s make sure we understand the issue in question, and define our terms.

The issue in question:  Does Google use social signals in web ranking?

In December 2010, the news came out that Google used social signals as a ranking factor. Cutts explained in a video:  “I can confirm it; we do use Twitter and Facebook rankings as we always have in our web search rankings.”

Earlier, in May 2010, Cutts had stated that it was not a signal. In December 2010, he explained that it now was.

Now — another reversal — in January 2014, he explains that social signals are not part of the ranking algorithm.

Repeat:  Social signals are not part of the ranking algorithm.

What are social signals?

Here’s the definition According to Zadroweb.com:

Understanding Social Signals and SEO: A Simple Guide 2014-04-09 08-08-39

What is an SEO factor?

I consider an “SEO factor” to be any element of web content that the algorithm uses to deliver search results.

For example, your robots.txt is an SEO factor, because it stipulates exactly what on your site the crawler can access and what it shouldn’t. General written content is an SEO factor, because it contains keywords, links, and elements that the algorithm uses to deliver results in response to search queries.

There are hundreds of such algorithmic elements that influence ranking.

But apparently, “social signals” are not one of them.

Here’s why social signals don’t impact SEO.

Why are social signals not an SEO factor anymore?

Because Matt Cutts told us so.

On January 22, 2014, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, published this video:

In case you didn’t watch the above video, let me sum it up with two screenshots.

Cutts was answering a question from the Google Webmaster Forums:

Are pages from social media sites ranked differently? - YouTube 2014-04-09 08-15-11

Here is Matt Cutt’s response (my transcript excerpt added)”

Are pages from social media sites ranked differently? - YouTube 2014-04-09 08-17-20

Unlike the apocalyptic fallout from Penguin and Panda, this seemed to cause little ripple in the search pond.

Maybe no one noticed it. Maybe everyone was too embarrassed to say anything. It was like a dirty secret that no one wanted to talk about.

Here’s exactly what Matt Cutts says in the video:

Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index, so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But, as far as doing special specific work to sort of say “you have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook”, to the best of my knowledge we don’t currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.

Some pundits wondered if Matt Cutts was lying. Others asked, “Does this mean there is some tiny bit of influence that could possibly be taking place?”

Some people requested that homie rank that jazz of social signals:

Are pages from social media sites ranked differently? - YouTube 2014-04-09 08-24-30

Other people just wanted Matt’s t-shirt.

Are pages from social media sites ranked differently? - YouTube 2014-04-09 08-25-28

That’s nothing new.

matt-cutts-2009-panda

What should we do about it?  Keep working on social.

In spite of the destruction of our dreams of social success, I want to encourage you to keep working hard at social. It’s still important, even if the algorithm doesn’t notice all the hard work you put into it.

Social is not a wasted endeavor. It’s critical to online success.

Your thousands of Twitter followers, your thriving Facebook community, and the raving Reddit peeps should still get your attention.

Here’s why:

1.  The content on social pages is indexed and returned in search results.

In the video, Matt Cutts explained that social content is still crawled and indexed.

Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results.

Thus, content that appears in social networks is important for search. Notice, I said content is important, not number of followers.

As you produce content on static pages within social networks, this content is crawled, indexed, and returned by Google. Have you noticed how Pinterest has huge SERP ranking? That’s because these static pages are indexed by Google.

So, rest assured, your Facebook and Twitter pages are indexed and returned.

2.  Social networks function as search engines.

Even though Google may not use social signals as a ranking algorithm, keep in mind that social networks are search engines in and of themselves.

For example, when I want up-to-the-minute information on a topic, I search Twitter.

Twitter / Search - ssl security breach 2014-04-09 08-43-22

Twitter optimizes search by displaying current trending results:

Twitter / Search - ssl security breach 2014-04-09 08-47-16

Facebook is a search engine, too. The parameters and customization of Facebook search far outweigh the search capabilities of Google within the confines of my social network.

Just yesterday, I was trying to see who I knew that worked at Starbucks. There’s no way that Google could deliver this: Facebook 2014-04-09 08-49-19

You’re probably already aware that YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine. YouTube search optimization is a niche all its own, as people discover how to harness the potential of its billions of monthly search engines. Yahoo, Bing, Ask and AOL search combined don’t come close to the volume of search queries that come through YouTube.

This is a prima facie argument that social networks are search engines.

We’re in a unique phase of search engine optimization. We’ve got to keep in mind that “search engine” can include Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and even Amazon.

That’s why you should still work hard at social.

3. Social has an audience and readership that is separate from search.

When you compare social media and search engine optimization, it’s like comparing a puppy to a pet robot.

  • The puppy is warm and fuzzy, alive, thinking, breathing. She loves you.

  • The robot is wicked smart, incredibly capable, but a soulless entity. It doesn’t love you.

SEO has a sterility— an incorporeal and detached aspect. But with social media, you have an active, interactive, and living audience.

SEOs interact with “crawlers.” Social media managers interact with people whom they can see, touch, and know.

This isn’t to discount the significance of SEO at all! The endgame of SEO is real people, readers, and users who are performing queries and reading content. However, social media is the actual venue where people are interacting today. Social users trust their social network for job recommendations, product purchases, personal encouragement, and news on current events.

It doesn’t really matter that Google doesn’t count your social signals, because you have an audience that is completely immune to any algorithm change.

You should be engaging that audience as if Google didn’t even exist.

Conclusion

My goal in this article has been to share a bit of information, and provide a bit of encouragement:

  • The bit of information:  Your number of social followers has zero impact on your search rankings. Sorry.

  • The bit of encouragement:  Your social media efforts are really important. Keep at it.

 

As Google continually develops its algorithms, it’s likely that social signals will become enmeshed in the search results. As it stands right now, however, it’s a moot point. We should still work hard at curating our social networks, and keeping an eye on Google.

Who knows what they’ll come up with next.

 

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