There’s no doubt now that your social media presence influences your rankings within the search engine results pages. However, what is up for debate is the specific mechanisms by which social media signals influence your site’s SEO.
In lieu of a definitive answer from Google (which we’re not exactly crossing our fingers for!), we’ve compiled the existing research on the role of social media in SEO to come up with three overall recommendations. Following these steps should help your website take advantage of the power of social media marketing, no matter how these markers are being weighted in the algorithms.
Step #1 – Increase Social Shares
According to Eric Enge, writing for Search Engine Watch, social shares are a “noisy” signal:
“Likes, +1s, and social links are still a noisy signal, which affects their use by search engines. The bottom line is that you need to focus on authority, your own, as well as relationships with other authorities.”
By “noisy”, Enge means that existing social signals – including Facebook “likes”, Twitter “tweets” and Google “+1s” – still have some serious weaknesses.
First of all, they can be gamed. A simple glance at sites like Fiverr shows a booming business for providers who will automatically send these social signals your way in exchange for a small fee. If SERPs rankings were determined exclusively by the number of social signals it earned, the highest positions in the search results would all be held by the people with the biggest budgets for buying social influence.
At the same time, these social signals aren’t representative of human behavior as a whole. Although roughly half of the US is on Facebook, only 4.8% of the population rates as “active users” of social networks, according to additional research cited by Enge. Adjusting the SERPs based on the behaviors of such a small percentage of the overall population isn’t likely something that would appeal to Google, whose goal is to provide the best possible search results for everyone (not just a small group of active users).
But despite these limitations, there’s no doubt that social signals like these do play a small role in the SERPs rankings, as representatives from Google and Bing both confirmed the practice as early as December 2010. In an interview with Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, representatives from both engines gave the following responses in reply to a question about whether or not their algorithms assigned any value to the relative authority of Twitter users and the links they shared in their tweets:
“We do look at the social authority of a user. We look at how many people you follow, how many follow you, and this can add a little weight to a listing in regular search results.”
And from Google:
“Yes, we do use [tweeted links and RTs] as a signal. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article.”
The bottom line is this. Social signals do matter from an SEO standpoint, but they aren’t strong enough to justify artificially padding your Facebook “likes”, Twitter “tweets” and Google “+1s.” Instead, providing your website readers with social tools that make sharing your content on social networks easy to do and encouraging them to share articles they enjoy on social networking sites should be enough to grow your social signals profile in an effective and sustainable way.
Step #2 – Grow Your Audience to Build Authority
When looking at how your social networking presence influences your site’s SEO, increasing your total number of social shares is only part of the picture. In fact, using the power of social networking sites to build your brand and grow your perceived authority is a much more useful way to take advantage of these community-based sites.
As both Google and Bing hinted at in their responses above, the relative authority of social networking users is considered in the ranking algorithms alongside the total number of shares each site receives. The natural conclusion that can be drawn from this is that being regarded as an authority figure within your industry’s social media space could have a positive influence on your site’s SERPs rankings now and in the future.
Of course, the value of having a well-established brand isn’t just limited to how this may influence your search engine rankings. From a business standpoint, you’ll likely find that you’re able to make more sales and influence more people as an established industry leader than you are as a “no name” blogger with little more than a website and a loose social networking following.
So how can you go about building an authority on these sites? Power blogger Chris Garrett shares this great diagram for envisioning how your digital presence should be built:
In this digital age, it’s important to remember that everything you say and do contributes to the overall perception people have about you.
Say you build up a strong industry blog and participate actively in community discussions on Twitter and Facebook, where you’re regarded as being a helpful authority figure. Now, imagine that these same community members do a Google search for your name and alongside these carefully cultivated resources, an unfortunate “What stays in
Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas” photo album on Flickr appears. What do you think this will do to your overall branding and authority?
To truly cultivate an effective online presence in order to improve your business results and your natural search rankings, invest time into all of the elements featured above in order to portray the image that you want associated with your brand.
Step #3 – Engage with Authority Users
Finally, while social networking can be extremely useful in terms of building your own branded authority within your industry, an even more powerful way to use social networking from an SEO standpoint is to “piggy back” of the authority of others.
Social networking sites provide an unprecedented opportunity to connect with thought leaders within your industry – something that never could have occurred even a few years ago, when industry-specific celebrities were considered to be aloof and unreachable.
But while connecting with these authority users may have significant value for your business and personal growth, getting these “power figures” to lend their perceived authority and share your content on social networking sites could be an even bigger benefit to your site’s SEO. In the Eric Enge article referenced earlier, the author goes on to say:
“If you want to be a significant player in your industry than social media needs to be an important part of your mix. However, getting an authoritative person in your space to share your content will probably be a big win, and this is an excellent goal for your social media campaigns.”
For this reason, it’s a great idea to use social networking sites to reach out to and connect with authority figures within your industry. Don’t demand that they share your content right away; instead, allow these relationships to develop over time. If you offer good value over time, some of these authority users may be willing to pass on a link to your site, representing a potentially huge impact for your site’s SEO.