When smart people interview search engineers and hear a cryptic explanation about a potentially new ranking signal – or review a Google patent application – it’s interesting news to SEO practitioners like me. I freely admit that I pay attention to these stories and read them carefully.
However, when it comes to all the recent emphasis on social signals in search rankings, the tail is wagging the dog. Potential clients are emailing me about incorporating social signals into small local SEO campaigns. Quora is blowing up with questions about how “SEO has changed” because of the new social components. Every two-bit SEO is writing about the importance of social signals for their own personal gain (including me, I suppose).
With the exception of some real-time search queries, I believe that social signals are a relatively minor concern in the world of SEO. Here’s why:
Show me the data. Again, with the exception of real-time results, there are no independent and authoritative studies (that I’m aware of anyway) that quantify the importance of social signals on “regular” search rankings. Danny Dover ran an informal test via the SEOMoz blog, and while the results are definitely interesting, they are admittedly not conclusive.
Common sense tells me social signals are problematic. Think about it from the perspective of the search engines for a moment.
- Search engines can’t crawl a big chunk of Facbook, so they’re working with an incomplete data set. Seems like a bad basis for calculating rankings, doesn’t it?
- Twitter is, in the words of Danny Sullivan, a fire hose. Is anyone certain Google and/or Bing can snag and crawl all of the links being churned out of Twitter? Even if they focus on “trusted” Twitter profiles, that’s still a mountain of data to crawl and process.
- Social profiles are easy to manipulate—it’s hard to tell if a Twitter or Facebook page is operated by a real person, let alone some marketer hell-bent on gaining followers.
- Social signals don’t automatically indicate quality. If social popularity was really an indicator of quality, then the world’s most popular fast-food joint would have to be the very best place to grab a hamburger, wouldn’t it?
That last point is the most important, because it underlines one simple truth about social signals: They can’t exist in a vacuum. Without some context (i.e. the other 200 ranking factors), they’re potentially meaningless and, at the very least, vague.
Matt Cutts told me social signals don’t matter. To me, this is the funniest part of th e social signals obsession—Matt Cutts has told us that aside from real-time results, Google is currently studying the impact of social signals. Studying is a far cry from actual implementation.
More specifically, Matt Cutts sa id in this video that: “…primarily, it has been used a little bit more in the real-time sort of search…we’re studying how much sense it makes to use it a little more widely within our web search rankings …”
Am I saying that social signals are meaningless? No. Am I saying that I really don’t care as much about social signals as I do things like on-site optimization, inbound links, and creating great content? Absolutely.
I’ll even go a step further and say that unless you’re working on SEO for a highly competitive term, you can ignore social media as a link source completely. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still using social media to promote content – but I’m confident that today, and for at least the next 12 months, a website can rank first overall for a moderately competitive term without any sort of Facebook page, Twitter profile, or one single link from a Twitter page.
How can I say such a thing? Because I see it all the time. Try out a search on Google and you will too.
Note: While finishing up this article I found a very similar piece with some great analysis written by Dave Harry a few days ago. Be sure to take a look at his article, too. I wrote mine independently, but I wouldn’t feel right without mentioning Dave’s article now that I’ve found it.