SEO

Will Social Signals Replace Links?

What if Social Media integration took over in terms of the future of Search Engine Optimization? In the world of SEO as it stands, there’s much talk about the role that social media plays in SEO and how the roles of social signals and traditional link building are starting to overlap.

What I’m suggesting is that we’re moving ever closer to a place where social signals and social sharing are going to become increasingly dominant factors in Search Engine Optimization. Currently in the world of SEO, link building and having inbound text links to your website anchored by keywords remain a very dominant force.

However, if you take a look at some of the more recent Google algorithm updates, including both the Panda and Penguin releases, we see that Google is starting to assign even greater value to certain links, and devalue spam links. Other ranking factors, including the usability of a given website and the quality of its content, are becoming increasingly important in the game of search engine rankings as well. These signs tell us that the satisfaction of a website’s visitor can determine the sites search engine rankings.

Will Social Signals Become The New Link?

Devaluing Inbound Links

If, in fact, social signals do become the “new” link, this will necessarily create some changes on the part of major search engines. One such change may be a devaluing or reduction in emphasis on the value of inbound links to a website. While inbound links are likely to retain a certain degree of weight when considering all ranking factors, they’ll likely lose their place as the ‘holy grail’ of search engine optimization.

Social Shares Within A Domain

In the evolution of SEO best practices, we’re likely to see movement toward increasing value placed on the quantity and quality of social signals contained within any particular domain. If that is the case, then the next obvious question becomes “How will Google index wall posts within the Facebook environment to find social shares?”

Social Signal Overflow

Another change worthy of consideration is whether the value of social signals on a given page will overflow or otherwise impact the other pages within that domain. For example, in the current state of SEO,  if you have a webpage that enjoys an inbound link from a .EDU domain (say Standford University), the power of the .EDU extension gives a higher degree of value to your page than would a link from a .NET domain. By extension, that same inbound link to your page may distribute additional power to other pages that the target page links to.

Social sharing typically happens when people ‘like’ or ‘tweet’ an individual URL or blog post within your website. Take, for instance, a piece of content that has received 500 ‘likes’ on Facebook, could the value of that amount of social sharing then overflow to improve the rank of all the remaining content on your website?

Most commonly, we see the sharing of article-style blog posts but not the sharing of the service-related pages that a company would typically want prospective customers to see on a search engine. Case in point, if you happen to work as a consultant or software provider, it’s far more likely for the average site visitor to share content that demonstrates your thought leadership than the content that only speaks to your product features or service offerings.

What Types of Penalties Will Google Use For Social Signals?

If Google does elect to issue future penalties, as it did with its Panda and Penguin updates, it may decide to punish certain types of social sharing rather than reward them. If that does happen, what would that look like and why would that happen?

Page Rank by Social Influence

Let’s consider that Google may assign a ranking or weight factor for individuals who do share in the social sphere but who might be considered spammers. Let’s say that you run a local HVAC company whose service area spans 20 miles, and yet your Facebook fan page has hundreds of ‘Likes’ from fans halfway around the world. It’s conceivable then that your rank would be negatively affected by what Google might construe to be a gaming of the system if the interactions or profile of your followers are deemed lacking or spammy.

panda Will Social Signals Replace Links?

Penalties from Social Signals

As in the past, it’s likely that fraudulent efforts to build reach through social channels will receive a strong SLAP by Google and its competitors. The more significant a ranking factor these social signals become, the more likely we are to see both positive and negative consequences depending upon our adherence to the rules.

Additional Penalties for Lack of Usability

In Google’s Panda update, we noticed more weight being given to the usability of a site as well as a corresponding penalty for those sites lacking in user-friendliness as measured by a visitor’s time on site. The penalty issued is a response to what’s deemed as low-quality content which fails to engage readers or hold their attention, thereby decreasing the length of the average visit.

If a particular piece of content is being shared socially yet fails to receive inbound links or adequate time on that page, Google’s algorithm may regard the imbalance as an indication of social spamming.

Is The End Near for Links?

When can we anticipate social signals overtaking traditional link building in the evolution of SEO? Perhaps not this year, but in looking ahead, businesses should anticipate such a shift as an eventuality; giving careful consideration to the power of social signals not only within your own domain but of those signals contained within the domains that link to your website.

Last but not least, do not exclude proven linking strategies including generating more inbound links to your site, properly anchored by those keywords for which you wish to improve your rank.

 Will Social Signals Replace Links?
Gabriel Gervelis is the owner of Gervelis Search Marketing. You can find him on Twitter - @seo_pro,

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33 thoughts on “Will Social Signals Replace Links?

  1. Hey Gabriel,

    Great post. I absolutely do agree with this thought that soon or later social signals might replace links. But as spammers prevail everywhere, we can see Twitter or LinkedIn spams. But shares by users who continuously share high value content, who have and real following should carry positive signals.

      1. Hell yeah! I think it should & it will. Till now Google is fighting with spammers & releasing new algorithms every 3-4 months. I’m sure they will find a way out . As Google highly encourages social signals & also getting active users in their social platform (on Google+) so, at least we can expect that from Google.

      2. First of all, great article about social signals. And I’m one of those who believed that social signals will play a significant role in the future of link building.

        Now, my opinion about your question… will Google algo detect spam shares vs real shares?

        I’m certain Google will detect it. Google might have that capability at this time, but they’re continuously working on it.

        Back in the day when blog networks are very popular, most of these networks are confident they cannot be tracked. But what happened to BMR, they’ve been obliterated by Google.

        It’s kinda the same scenario is happening with social signals. Spammers are leaving the conventional way of link building and moving to social spamming.

  2. I thought Google didn’t have access to the content behind the Facebook “wall” – so are they going to rely on Google + shares? I don’t think so!

    If this did become the case then the market for paid “social sharing” will be huge – people on social networks will constantly be spammed by people asking them to share their link or content, even with offers of “payment-to-share” just like people pay for links. The difference is a lot of webmasters are open to a paid link on their site, however the average Joe using social media will get sick of the spam.

    Facebook and Twitter etc wouldn’t allow their user’s experience to be corrupted by people trying to game the Google ranking algorithm, so if Google did go down that route the social networks would ensure they had no access to their social signals and the big G would be stuck with crappy old Google plus.

    Not going to happen.

    1. I’m referring to the social shares on the page, not from within the Facebook wall (That’s what Facebook Graph Search will accomplish).

      take a look at the social shares on this blog post….then think about the amount of social shares within the entire domain. Yes, spammers will always try to spam……

      Do you think that social shares within a domain will have an impact on SEO?

  3. Nice post, we are definitely re-structuring our SEO strategies on an ongoing basis and as we continue to refine our methods we are finding Google to be de-indexing numerous sources that provided links in the past. In regards to social signals and creating proper website structure, credible sources for “social signals” are long overdue. In regards to Facebook providing real value on content and real critical information for consumers being socially liked – this is a little far fetched. Can not imagine there will be a lot of people “liking” topics related to credible health issues, finance issues or the such that people trust the search engine to guide them on. Though experts commenting and making sources more credible could and should be more and more valuable. As well content surrounding links should continue to become more valuable than the anchor text itself because at the end of the day how many web users truly know how to create back-links that are not in the internet marketing industry.

  4. Great article! Social is definitely the metric that will continue to increase in ranking weight. I agree that links won’t go away for a while – it’s still the holy grail for a couple more years – but eventually, social will be more than the 20% ish that it is today.

    Do you have any methods for gaming the social sharing part? Like outsourcing real Americans to like and tweet your posts so Google picks that social engagement up?

    I know you can’t game Google+ because it’s Google, and they will screw you.

  5. Nice post and good thought in the post but I will love to disagree on some part Gabriel Gervelis. True that Google will consider social signals as a ranking factor, in fact, they are in place by now. But, this will no way replace traditional inbound links. Why ?

    # Google or any other major search engines will know that entertainment based sites like movie review sites will get more social shares and likes than a finance based sites. This can be unfair to any site in any niche. Not everything is sharable in social media by common people.

    #Moreover, it’s relatively hard to earn a link than to get a share, retweet or like on FB, twitter or G+. Spammers will be delighted to find social signals as ranking factors.

    # To filter out/count shares or likes, Google bots should have access to walls (or something like this) of individual profiles. I am skeptical here since social networking sites such as FB, Linkedin may not give access to personal profiles of their members to any bots. But this may change but I am not sure since all of them are competing in the market.

    But truly a good reading of the article and we must start thinking otherwise now..

  6. I really don’t think simply using ‘likes’ could take over from link building. The fact you can just buy fake ones on pages devalues the whole process which makes them unreliable for tracking in my opinion. The same can’t be said for .EDU links, you can’t really get a link from these type of domains very easily. making for better SEO.

  7. Links have a sentiment analysis factor (ie no follow). Until you can get 99.99999% accurate sentiment for social signals they’ll never be as strong a metric as links are now.

    As for the general point of “Will X replace links?”

    No, nothing will replace links. Google wants links to have the same influence on rankings as any other relevant factor.

    Why? So there is no one ranking factor that can be gamed by SEOs.

    1. I’m with ya Will. But, I don’t think we are taking in the factor of innovation. Yes, links are the number 1 ranking factor that drives SEO. When an entire industry says something like “It will never happen…..” something comes along and makes it happen. True Innovation, and once innovation happens every ones says, “oh yea, why didnt I see that coming.”

      There are so many fundamentally game changing shifts happening all over every industry, I think SEO might be due to for a game changer? Will it be social signals? Who knows…but it is a great conversation.

  8. Good thoughts Gabriel. Surely social signals will certainly be given more prominence than the traditional inbound links by the search engines going forward but for that to happen the social giant Facebook and the search giant Google has to team up which will be a great prospect for the web ecosystem. Facebook has to give Google the access to their behind the walls data for measuring the social signals and for the ranking analysis.

  9. Very nice post. But ‘Replace’ might be an over-used word in this case. Social signals might (and hopefully will) get more projection in future, but they are not going to replace links in near future. Actually, nothing is going to replace links in near future due to their difficult-to-earn nature.

  10. Hey Gabriel Gervelis,

    That’s a sure shot point you have picked, looking at the graph of google’s updates there are possible chances of google updates hitting social signals in the name of “ZEBRA” in the combination of panda and penguin. I completely agree with you for the points which you stated above.

    I have a small question on this
    “What if someones friend is far away from the area span of lets say 100 miles or in international country/state and if he likes or makes an comment on the social shared link.” Will Google consider this spam promotion or anything else.

    Please update on this.

    1. Raviraj,

      Of course, I can only speak in theory on this one. My guess is that the GEO location of the commenter will not have an impact. However, Google may be able to track how this person found the content, and how they are connected to the source.

      If the person in Spain is making un-relevant comments on a chiropractors blog in Seattle, then this will be a flag. Also, if the person in Spain has a low number of social klout, then I am sure this will be a flag too.

      I would never envision Google penalizing real people for sharing and engaging with quality content.

      Gabriel -

  11. Social signals are extremely easy to fake, both the blackhat way but more importantly it’s extremely easy to stir people to vote.

    It takes nothing for a person to click ‘Like’ or ‘bookmark’, just offer him the lowest form of incentive to do so (‘click like and get a 5% discount’ or ‘click like and you may win a car in our draw next month’).

    There is no way for Google to penalize this because it’s a valid marketing practice. Google will literally have to ‘change the world’ in order to change this practice.

    It’s also very easy to socially engineer people to vote on low quality content without even offering material rewards.

    Social votes are a dime a dozen. People vote haphazardly without feeling a need to think twice. And you can’t blame them for it.

    People are way, way more picky, put it much more thought and naturally feel much more responsibility regarding the links they put on their website (let alone if it’s an authority site).

    Quality top results go out the window once social becomes a prominent ranking signal. This is due to the nature of signal itself.

    1. I’d say low quality content + lots of social signals is not a win-win for Google. I agree with you, social signals can be generated through black hat techniques. Also, incentives for people to share (5% off) is a valid business practice. At the end of the day I bank on the fact that if the user does not like the content, regardless of the incentive, they will not share it. If a company has this type incentive structure in place and are executing it, odds are their marketing efforts are driving amazing domain authority on all fronts, and they are generating quality content.

      Jim, I do agree with you. If social signals replace links 100%, then then quality top results go out the window. In order to give klout to social signals, then Google must be able to identify who is sharing the content and if it is a “legit” share.

  12. SEO has always been about the ability and willingness to adapt, that said SEO basics remain essentially the same over the years. I strongly believe SEO will continue to remain an effective tool for finding relevant content online. Where most ‘SEO experts’ go wrong is in focussing overtly on link building and, for the lack of a better word, spamming and overloading content with supposed ‘keywords’. The problem with this is that as a user even if I manage to end up on your page, it’s unlikely I will stay there long enough if the content is just designed to trick Google.
    We know Google can’t read, so it depends on back-links, keywords etc. to find content it thinks is relevant. This system was much abused by SEOs and therefore Google’s has been constantly trying to change search algorithms. The latest’s called Penguin which intends to filter ‘black hat’ SEO techniques such as keyword overload, spamming, cloaking and superficial link building. The latest update has affected the ranking of many sites and ‘SEO experts’ are crying hoarse that SEO is dead.
    Such updates are not new and SEOs who have been able to adapt in the past have managed to stay relevant. While it’s obvious Google is trying to promote genuinely good content, the importance of links and keywords has not disappeared altogether.
    As argued here, Social Media Optimization is going to play a big role in SEO. Posting interesting content and constantly updating your social media to keep your readers engaged will work to your advantage.
    However, as I repeatedly say, the most important factors which determines the worth of your brand in the online space is quality content and consistency. From a purely SEO perspective, not only does good content attract organic links, it also ensures visitors are more likely to connect and engage with your brand. So the SEO mantra going forward is quality content optimised with the right use of keywords and links, without of course stuffing them in, and effective use of social media by engaging with your fans and posting fresh, relevant content consistently.
    Another interesting points to highlight here is that these new updates are also a clear attempt from Google to funnel more and more online advertising through their Adwords and other products, so don’t forget to include Google + in your SEO strategy. It’s free, it’s social and it’s Google – can’t go wrong with that!

  13. Times certainly are changing when you start talking about the value of backlinks to social signals. I’ve no doubt it will come into being. But question just how Google and others will make it work and more importantly what should we be doing now to ensure we are right up with the play.

  14. I am a big believer that there is real value in social signals and that they do have an impact. In my mind though, it seems like we’re a long ways away from them replacing links. Linking from one website to another is integral to the structure of the internet and is what holds it all together.

    It’s pretty easy to ‘like’ or share something without even reading it and going to the effort of including a link to the content on your website or blog is an extra vote.

    I do have to wonder though if, over time, Google won’t factor in (if they aren’t already) the actions associated with a ‘like’ or a ‘retweet’ or a +1 and include them in the over all equation. If a person clicked through (spent some time on the page), shared it or better yet linked to it, and ‘liked’ it – that might be worth something to Google as it relates to the quality of the content.

    1. Beth,

      Thanks a great theory! I never thought of adding that click path to the equitation. I’m in your corner, the more actions someone takes after they share content can be a signal to Google that the content is top rated.

      1. Gabriel,
        It is interesting to think about isn’t it? I think we’ll see more movement among the social scorecards such as Klout, Kred, and TrustCloud to align expertise with engagement.

        I recently got a message from Klout that prompted me to post an invitation to my Facebook friends to ask me questions related to my listed areas of interest/expertise. I feel the execution is flawed for a number of reasons – but it does send a signal that they are trying to find ways to correlate expertise with engagement and popularity factors.

        Twitter also just released news that they are going to add in a quality factor to tweets and followers – many interesting times ahead!

        Cheers!

  15. You and me both! I think it’s awesome, it will really help weed out the bad content and meaningless followers. I think it also means I really need to get serious about figuring out how to best use Twitter :)

  16. The signals must be delivered naturally from real and active users, if they are delivered at once from many fake accounts this can harm your rank as well . If the social signals are natural and created manually, they will be compatible with Google as they are based on real opinions and recommendations of the people. They are said to be the person to person references. They can give better rankings to your site with Google and any other major ranking sites for sure.

  17. I though this article was helpful, but what I really want to know is, how does google evaluate social signal weight right now? Is it links from Facebook to my website that increase my ranking or do likes and shares count for something entirely different? Is Google even capable of crawling through Facebook for links?

    1. Thats a great question, I don’t have a resource to direct you to. I’d assume that content that is shared on peoples walls Google will not have access to, unless the user has their privacy settings set to allow the public to view their wall.

      As of today, I have not seen an increase in my SEO rankings as a direct result of a few social shares…….

  18. I agree, social signals will play a bigger part in ranking sites as time goes by. As for being able to detect fake social signals Google can do this to a degree already by using metrics.

    If a webpage has had 100 visits but has an absurdly number of Likes, shares or tweets in comparison to their user metrics then they will count those as falsified.

    I have tested this myself. Posts that use a plugin to encourage LIKES such as a content locker… didn’t get the rankings I expected whilst those that has social signals but on a much smaller scale ranked well.

    There will be movement here and the threshold is wide… but they can tell to some degree.