How Social Media Changed SEO And Why Your Business Can’t Thrive Without It

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How Social Media Changed SEO And Why Your Business Can’t Thrive Without It

Many people ask the question, “Is social media necessary to get good search engine rankings?”

In my opinion, they are starting with the wrong question. I think the die has already been cast on the importance of social media and whether or not it should be an integral part of SEO. (It should.)

The real question is, “Can SEO thrive without social media?”

To that, I firmly believe the answer is “No”. Not today, and not for as long as social media continues to play a role in shaping society. Until the great EMP hits, I don’t see social media losing its grip on how we live our lives. Which means, search engines will look for ways to incorporate certain social signals into their ranking algorithms. And rightly so. Social media, essentially, is the real-time pulse of what we like, dislike, love, and loath. It only makes sense that search engines want to measure this in order to make rankings more relevant for both the masses and each person individually.

Social Media Changed SEO Forever

How Social Media Changed SEO And Why Your Business Can't Thrive Without It

The truth is, social media has truly changed the SEO landscape. There is no going back.

Historically, links were the primary off-page factor that search engines could consider when analyzing a site’s importance, authority and popularity. Social media is the new backlink.

In fact, the Russian search engine Yandex has recently taken links completely out of their algorithm in favor of other external signals. Matt Cutt from Google has made it known that they have also tested dropping backlinks from their algorithm. While he admitted that they were unable to maintain the high level of quality in those tests, it wouldn’t surprise me if Google continues to devalue links over time until they are almost completely out of the picture.

Personally, I don’t think Google will ever need to remove links completely, but relying on them less and finding alternate link value mechanisms is likely coming soon to a Google algorithm near you.

So as links get valued less, that means something has to be valued more. That something is, undoubtedly social media. Of course, “social media” ranking factors are about as broad as “on page” ranking factors. Just as there can be several dozens of on-page factors that search engines look at, there can also be several dozens of social factors that are included. And that’s what makes social such a powerful addition to the mix of algorithm signals. There are a lot of different signals to tweak and adjust until a great balance is struck with the rest of the factors.

But it wasn’t always this way.

How to Get Rankings in 1999


Without going into a full history of search engines algorithms, it’s important to understand that it wasn’t all that long ago that search engines looked almost entirely at on-page factors for rankings. Google introduced using links as a factor, which helped make their results more relevant than the rest of the engines of the day. Back then, people only linked to site’s that added value to what they were doing.

Of course, that opened up a whole can of worms and led to massive link manipulation by the SEO industry. Google had to start cracking down on “bad” links even to the point of devaluing links made with improper intent. That’s to say, if the value of the link to the website’s audience isn’t as important as the reasons why the link was placed. Value be damned, it’s intent that matters!

But the point is, back then, on-page optimization and links were all there was and that’s where businesses poured their web marketing dollars into. But in 2014, we see an entirely different picture.

How to Get Rankings in 2014


Today, there are more factors than ever, with social media being just one of them. Other factors such as content, usability issues and even conversion optimization play growing role in how the search engines analyze a site for ranking purposes. Remember, search engines want to deliver site’s that searchers find valuable. If the content is crap, the site is hard to use, or has low conversion rates, these are all signals to the search engine that the site itself is of low searcher value.

But for this post I’ll focus on the social aspects and how those impact search engine rankings overall.

Last year Moz posted a study that showed the Amazing Correlation Between Google +1s and Higher Search Engine Rankings. It didn’t take long for Matt Cutts to debunk that study going into the differences between correlation and causation. In his post, Matt posted a link to this comic:


I don’t care to get into the correlation vs. causation debate, and we don’t have to in order to understand that one thing doesn’t have to be the cause of something specifically in order for it to have an impact. In this case, social share may not directly play a role in Google’s algorithm, but the things that make any piece of content get socialized a lot tend to be the things that do help it rank better.

So if your content gets shared, your rankings are likely to go up because the content has all the ingredients Google’s ranking algorithm is looking for. It’s not the shares that are pushing your rankings up, it’s the other stuff. The shares (and rankings) are just a byproduct of the good stuff.

However, the whole question of social shares impacting search engine rankings isn’t even a great question. Social shares are just one social media signal. The better question to ask here is, “Does social media help with SEO?”

Social Correlation Can Assist SEO Causation


If social media marketing doesn’t directly cause rankings, it most definitely provides an assist. That’s because social content earns the very same signals that the search engines are looking for. This may not be a direct result of social media but, at this point, it’s hard to separate the two. Content that deserves rankings also deserves to do well in the social sphere. And content that does well in the social sphere also deserves to rank well.

Of course, that last statement isn’t 100% true. But the more competitive an industry is the truer it becomes. I’ve always said that SEO is a game of baby steps. That’s to say rankings are achieved by doing a whole lot of small things. The more competitive an industry, the more businesses there are doing more of those small things. Including social things that lend to the SEO things.

If social media doesn’t directly increase rankings, it certainly increases ranking opportunities. Social media offers an amazing ability to promote one’s content. That’s not to say that social media is a promotion platform. It’s not. Social media is an engagement platform. Promotion is a part of that engagement, but a very small one. Or at least it should be a small part. But whether you’re directly promoting yourself, sharing someone else’s content, talking about something you’re passionate about, or having a conversation, all of that feeds into a self-promotional aspect.

How Social Media Changed SEO And Why Your Business Can't Thrive Without It

No matter how significant a role engagement plays with your social media efforts, social media is still a very narcissistic activity. We blog, engage, and promote because we think we have something important to contribute. Perhaps we are all narcissists! But it’s that sense of importance that keeps us engaging over and over again. Ask yourself honestly, would you continue to do what you do on social media if no one engaged, followed, or commented back? Yes? Maybe, but what if no one was to ever read what you have to say? I’m going to go with no on that.

So social media, even as an engagement platform, offers something of value to us. What is that value?

Hopefully something a bit more meaningful than just feeding our egos. In fact, social media does offer us an avenue to increase our ranking opportunities. Writing and socializing awesome content builds up the very signals that search engines look for when ranking sites and pages for keywords. While site’s don’t rank for keywords, they do have an incredible effect on the ability of any single page to rank. The value of a site is assessed just as the value of a page is assessed and the value of the site assessment is passed on to the page.

Engaging in social media has both a site-wide and a page specific effect that can translate into ranking opportunities that you may not have had otherwise. And with more and more site’s jumping on the social bandwagon, if you’re not on board, you are allowing competitors to get ahead of you in a very critical area. It may only be baby steps, but a lot of baby steps can add up very quickly in a competitive field.

Despite all the dire predictions over the past 15 years, SEO hasn’t died. And it won’t. But that doesn’t mean it can survive in a vacuum. It can’t. Just as good SEO required links in order to help a site achieve top search engine rankings, today, SEO needs social media for the very same reason.

Just as it’s difficult to have great health without both exercise and eating right, it’s difficult to achieve top search engine rankings without both SEO and social media. You can do great SEO, but rarely is it enough to succeed without other online marketing components–especially the social component.

So the answer to the question, “Can SEO thrive without Social Media?” is no. SEO is simply not as effective without social media marketing working right along side it.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Created by author for Search Engine Journal
Image #2, #3 and #5: Created by author for Search Engine Journal
Image #4: via xkcd

Stoney G deGeyter

Stoney G deGeyter

Stoney deGeyter is the author of The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!, and President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading web presence optimization firm... Read Full Bio
Stoney G deGeyter
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  • Sandy Mallach

    I can see your point, SEO has to rely on social media. I think SEO/social media marriage is a big win for the companies that use SEO.


    • Stoney deGeyter

      I agree, Sandy.

  • Prem Nath Vishwakarma

    SEO needs social media or we can say that more quality links now created through the Social Media.

    • Stoney deGeyter

      That’s the way we go about getting links for our clients. Great content socialized properly brings great links!

  • Vimlesh

    Hi Stoney G deGeyter,

    We all know that social media is the key for SEO but you have gone one step ahead to explain it nicely with graphs. Hats off to you. Thanks for sharing.

    • Stoney deGeyter


  • Ali Waqas

    In my opinion now in modern world social media become an power. Social media like facebook and twitter encourage the peoples to visiting the sites and its content, and give organic traffic for seo.

  • Sid Silhouette

    Great article. Love this: “Social media is an engagement platform.” Many are having a problem with this. Social signals are a good ranking signal. This article alone may kill the market for buying links. In which, I don’t have a problem with. In addition, I’m glad you’ve mentioned something about Yandex, I was beginning to wonder what is Russia’s focus. Yandex seems as if it is an aggressive search engine of porn sites. Yet, according to SEJ, they have other alternatives. At least this is my take away.

    • Stoney deGeyter

      That’s the biggest problem many people have with social media… you have to engage. Promotion only will pretty much fail. You have to engage for promotion via social to work.

  • Anand

    It’s going to be a long time before Google awards similar emphasis on links and social (the current scenario is not anywhere close to the second graph). One reason for my argument is because putting so much emphasis on social would make Google dependent on metrics from a handful of other businesses like Facebook and Twitter. Google has no way to infer whether a link that is getting popular on Facebook is because it is due to organic reasons or because someone’s paying people to share on Facebook (Unlike pay-for-link, it is difficult for Google to separate the wheat from chaff when it comes to pay-for-share/tweet).

    In such a scenario, Google will not put its credibility at stake by trusting the sharing patterns on a third party platform it has no control over.

    • Stoney deGeyter

      Google is more interested in the metrics of what people are doing on the site itself. Though every metric matters in one form or another. Get enough metrics together and you can interpret most anything. That’s what Google is attempting to do. Any metric by itself tells very little. Get a lot of small metrics and they know quite a bit about what people are doing. I’m not saying Google does this perfectly now, but they are getting there.

  • Justin MacDonald

    This is all very true. The new landscape of SEO has taken a huge swing, because now search engines can use social platforms as votes for your site. This has given them massive power and allowed SEO to transform into a whole different animal. Great article!

    • Stoney deGeyter

      Thanks Justin!

  • Tarun Gupta

    Quite a tactful observation indeed. The way social signals are getting credit of improved search rankings, it’s becoming tough to save old SEO. We may agree upon the fact that both SEO and Social are complementing each other now, however, SEO has small bite of cake and social enjoys the big one, as of now.

    Am I right Matt ?

  • Lucas Rose

    Nice read.

  • Randy

    Engagement, engagement, engagement. Agreed, social signals around your site and your profiles tell a bigger story than a website or links ever could.

    • Stoney deGeyter

      Yup, so true!

  • Pete McAllister

    I’m going to go against the grain of other commentators here and say that this article vastly overstates the importance of social media to SEO specifically. I think it’s important to online marketing overall (and this is increasing at a rapid rate) but as you mention it’s likely not a direct ranking factor.

    If content that does well socially should also naturally garner the external signals Google is looking for these are what? Referral traffic? Recommendations? Increased direct visits? Most of these can only be validated through links.

    You don’t provide any examples of other external ranking factors apart from links which would come with social media success, you just state ‘the good stuff’. I think this weakens your argument quite a bit…

    In my opinion social media is probably used as a validation tactic for links. Because in many industries as you imply, content that naturally gets links would also get social buzz. So if a bunch of links are present without the expected accompanying social buzz they might be flagged or invalidated.

    • Stoney deGeyter

      Thanks for your thoughts Pete. Since social impact is much more immediate than ranking impact, I think people have a tendency to do more worthwhile content and engagement if it’s meant for social, rather if it’s just meant for “SEO”. My point was if you do what it takes to succeed at social, those same principles will be applied over to organic.

      I’m not saying social causes an increae in rankings, but rankings happen if social is done right.

      • Brent Carnduff

        I have to thank Pete for questioning this article – I completely support the idea that it needs to be questioned. Stoney, I appreciate your response, and can see that in the article, but unless this article is read VERY closely – the message it gives is that “Social Media is the New Backlink” and that is just not the case. It can definitely help indirectly with SEO, and the factors that create a link-able asset could also create an article that creates an article that receives a lot of social media shares. I can see the logic in social signals playing a more direct role, and believe that one day they will – but that is not currently the case.

  • Grue

    The SEO “game” has changed a lot in the last few years. Back in the days it was easy to rank a website with good (or not so good) links, but today, this is impossible. You need a lot more then links, and social media is definitely a big factor in rankings. Great article by the way!

    • Stoney deGeyter


  • Sam Huang

    This proves the adage that you don`t go out to link to someone, you get online to communicate with others. To give and take, and to learn as well as show and tell.The links you receive are simply a natural, organic by-product of saying `Hi`to someone, and having them find you interesting. We can all learn from what we do online with Social Media in our business lives.

    Thanks for the post, Stoney.

    • Stoney deGeyter

      Yup. If you have something worth linking to… good social promotion will get it out there and get the links!

  • Mac

    No one can prove links in social sites work as link juices. Great experts believe they don’t count as votes. But you’ve made a good point in telling that they have contributions to ranking. Though not through links, I believe through engagement. Social media channels serve as a gateway for traffic, particularly opportunities.

    • Stoney deGeyter

      Right. It’s that engagement that builds good quality links that search engines want!

  • Rahul Dubey

    Hey I agree to your points that SEO can’t survive without social media. I too had a case study recently, one of my post was top ranked for a particular phrase of keywords. Few days later it got demoted by few ranks, then I tried this technique of social sharing got few more shares and again successfully ranked that post to top. So I must say social media is must for SEO.

    And totally agree with your words, “Just as it’s difficult to have great health without both exercise and eating right, it’s difficult to achieve top search engine rankings without both SEO and social media”.

    Thanks !

  • Mihai Pintilie

    It’s not the social media who will help improving rankings, it’s the engagement who will do it. And not simple engagement but the effectiveness of this engagement will give the measure of the improvement.

    • Kelsey Jones

      Great point Mihal! I agree.

    • Stoney deGeyter

      Yup, I agree 100%. Social media is just the channel, it’s what you do with it that matters.

  • Stoney deGeyter

    Actually, Brent, I do think that social media is the new link building. Not in a perfect one to one sense, but in using social to build awareness of your quality content that in turn leads to great links. Link building is much more direct, but using social to generate links often leads to better and more natural links than you’d get otherwise.

  • Rob Doyle

    Well done and said. I think you are right on track Stoney. While social is certainly not the “be all, end all” SEO strategy, you must still implement it along with many others to be effective in our current landscape. Nice job – you sir have a new follower!

    • Stoney deGeyter

      Thanks Rob. Good web marketing is all about balance. Search engines want to reward sites that are already doing great on the web without them. The ranking is just a bonus!