The impact of social media on SEO has, and probably always will be, one of the most talked about topics in the search industry. Specifically, whether social media really helps your SEO efforts.
So does it?
Short answer: yes.
For the longer answer, however, you really should read the rest of this post.
Social media doesn’t help SEO in the way many people think it does.
Let’s answer this question by digging into some data, evidence from Google employees, and personal insights.
Social Media ≠ Ranking Factor
First off, in reality, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever know exactly what’s in Google’s algorithm unless someone works at Google, doesn’t sign an NDA (good luck!), and decides to share that information with us. No shocker here — that isn’t likely to happen.
So we’re left to infer based on what Google employees have said and what we have in case studies/data. Google has repeatedly told us that social signals aren’t a direct ranking factor.
Let’s start with What Social Signals Do Google & Bing Really Count? by Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan. In this article, Google confirmed that links shared on Facebook and Twitter are used as a ranking signal.
After this article was published, Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s webspam team, confirmed that Google used links from Facebook and Twitter as ranking signal. Here’s that video:
Fast forward to 2014. Cutts produced another video tackling this question. This time he said that Google treats Facebook and Twitter pages like any other web page for search, but not as a ranking factor.
In 2016, Gary Illyes, a Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, was asked if Google takes social into account for SEO. He then retweeted Cutts’ video and said: “the short version is, no, we don’t.”
Since Google’s algorithm is so secretly guarded, we have to take these comments at their official word — that social media isn’t a direct ranking factor.
But just because Google said that social isn’t a ranking factor doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impact rankings. According to Searchmetrics’ 2016 Rebooting Ranking Factors White Paper:
“The correlation between social signals and ranking position is extremely high, and the number of social signals per landing page has remained constant when compared to with the values from last year’s whitepaper. … The top-ranked websites in Google’s rankings displays vastly more social signals than all other pages…. This is primarily due to the overlap between brand websites performing strongly in social networks and being allocated top positions by Google.”
I believe the answer to this lies in the second word in that quote — correlation. Cutts hints at the same thing when he says, “It’s correlation, not causation.”
We know links are one of the top Google ranking factors. Google has said that social media shares don’t count as individual links. But there most likely is correlation here.
If you create good content, it will most likely be popular on social media, and people are probably going to like it and link it to — which does boost your rankings.
So is it a surprise that sites with high ranking positions also have high numbers of social signals? It shouldn’t. It makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it is a direct ranking factor.
How Social Media Helps SEO
Although social media isn’t a direct Google ranking factor, here are four ways social media actually does help your SEO efforts.
1. Potential for Links
The more shares on social media you have, the more opportunities people have to see your content and link to it.
In this case study, a company achieved over 130,000 Facebook shares to a web page and shot up the rankings for keyword phrases that were competitive. It still ranks #1 (as of this writing) and is a really good example of a good content creation and promotion strategy.
Back in 2014, we assumed Facebook shares were a good ranking signal and, therefore, we preached Facebook shares would help rankings. What we were unable to see was that it wasn’t about Facebook shares at all. It was about links that can come from Facebook shares. Here’s an example:
The author found the article on Facebook and then decided to link back to it. This shows that having popular content on social media helps to attract potential links.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s Twitter, Pinterest, or Facebook. If you make high-quality content that gains traction on social media, you’re more likely to get links from other websites.
2. Build an Audience
You can have the best product or service out there, but if people don’t know about it, you can give it up. “Build it and they will come” doesn’t cut it in today’s competitive marketplace. You have to be proactive and reach people where they are.
And where are the majority of people? Social media. In fact, Facebook has nearly 2 billion users.
With the number of people on social media, its worldwide reach, and its ease of sharing, social media is a great way to build your web presence and quickly build an audience. If you want to be found among the millions of sites on the web (and the 571 new websites being created each minute), you’re going to have to up your social game.
We also know that click-through rates can impact search engine rankings. Social media marketing helps build brand awareness and an audience, which increases the likelihood that people will click on your brand’s content in Google’s search results.
Here’s a good example, a search for [three most important google ranking factors]:
Since I know that Search Engine Journal is one of the most trusted voices in search engine marketing, I’m more likely to click on their organic listings than any of the others.
Think about it from your own experience — if you were to Google “men’s running shoes”, wouldn’t you be more likely to click on Nike, as opposed to randomshoecompany.com? You might not want to admit it, but yes, consumers are more likely to turn to companies they know and trust.
The bigger your brand is and the more consumers trust you, the more likely you are to receive a larger share of clicks in Google. Social media can be a great and efficient way to help you build your brand and get in front of people who wouldn’t have otherwise found you. Once you start getting more of the share of clicks in Google from your expanded audience, the higher you will start to rank.
3. Branded Searches
When consumers Google your brand name plus a keyword phrase, it can help you rank for similar keyword phrases.
An example of this would be if you have a horde of consumers searching “[Your Brand Name] Jeans” and they interact positively with your content, Google would think that since your web page ranks well for “[Your Brand Name] Jeans”, it would also be a good result for “Jeans” and place you higher for the keyword phrase “Jeans”.
In a quick analysis of a fashion website we did earlier this year, the site, FashionNova, rose from nothing to 88,000 keywords (in SEMrush) over the course of a year. We discovered that the only positive SEO ranking factors it had over everyone else were that its bounce rate was much lower than other sites, according to Alexa, and they had 6.3 million Instagram followers.
Instagram doesn’t have the best linking procedure, so what happened was hundreds of thousands of consumers each month were searching Google for things like “Fashion Nova Jeans” and other related keyword phrases. This enabled Google to understand more of what consumers wanted when they searched particular phrases.
If consumers interacted positively with the Fashionnova.com web page — which ranks for “Fashion Nova Jeans” — then, over the course of 100,000 search queries a month for the keyword phrase “Fashion Nova Jeans”, you might imagine Google would eventually have thought perhaps that particular web page would be good for the keyword phrase “Jeans” as well.
4. Helps Promotion
Although this article has focused mostly on Facebook and Twitter, we can’t forget YouTube.
YouTube is actually the second most-searched search engine. However, most of the YouTube search queries have low commercial-intent, whereas Google brings in all the converting customers.
But you can still use YouTube to positively influence your SEO performance. You can create videos to promote your content or brand, which can lead to links, and your videos can potentially rank organically in the SERPs.
A good example is a company which blends random items and made a website out of their YouTube videos once they realized YouTube videos hosted on YouTube provide no real SEO value.
You can use this example, and other social media platforms, to promote your content to your audience and be able to acquire high-quality backlinks. There are a few dependencies though:
- Your audience must be on social media.
- Your audience must care about your content.
This is why B2B is a pretty hard sell when doing social media marketing in order to help SEO. Engagement is challenging for most B2B companies.
Generally, people using social media aren’t thinking about work. They’re thinking about their interests and hobbies. So if you can take a different approach (perhaps creating humorous content or something outside of your service offering), you just might get better engagement.
Will Google ever include more social media signals in its ranking algorithm? Maybe, maybe not.
Regardless of what the future holds, it’s clear that social media can, in fact, help your SEO efforts. Social media offers many long-term benefits.
Even if social media isn’t a direct Google ranking factor, it is one of the best ways to promote content and be found online. Which is, ultimately, what SEO is all about.
Featured Image: Pixabay
Screenshots by Ronald Dod. Taken April 2017.
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