Social Signals in SEO? Who Cares

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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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Jason Lancaster

Jason Lancaster

Jason Lancaster is President of Spork Marketing, a Denver Internet marketing company specializing in search engine optimization, marketing, and web design.
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  • Moosa Hemani

    Ok, I read every bit of the article and I would say I have a bit of a different opinions. Yes I do agree we cannot forget all the other 200+ signals and work on social media but I guess it’s not a factor that a one can miss especially when it comes to long tail keywords.

    I guess Google is taking social signals more and more seriously. One of the tests you can find on SEOmoz blog ‘’ though the post is on some other topic but it also clearly shows that Google is considering social signals seriously

    But, I cannot deny the fact that yes other SEO factors like On-page SEO, link building and great and greater content is currently obviously more important and I believe there is no limit to linking… no seriously would you mind if people continuously link to your website/page? I don’t think so.

    I personally feel that with all the other SEO practices we should practice strong social media .

    • Jason Lancaster

      Moosa – I think that *natural* social media activity goes hand in hand with good online marketing. If, for example, people like this post, they will tweet it, share it on facebook, reference it on their blogs, etc.

      Therefore, why worry about how these signals will impact rankings? Good content – properly promoted – should take care of this for me.

      As for spending time working on getting a few more tweets or a few more “likes”, I think it’s better invested in sending out some emails reaching out to people in the industry, making a couple phone calls, etc.

      Overall, however, I agree that SEO should incorporate social media best practices. What I don’t like – and the point of my article – is all this energy being devoted to social signals. They’re just not that important – at least not right now.

  • Erika L Rich

    This was a great post, but I think it may be wrong to not care about Social Signals. Meaning, Google may not be “ranking” based on Social Signals, but when a site has a consistent Social Profile, with many people from those profiles commenting and engaging for that brand, Google is paying attention.

    If you had two sites side by side on the same exact subject, optimized the same EXACT way, with the only difference being a Social Media presence, I’m willing to bet that the one with the Social Media presence is going to outrank the one without, purely based on the fact that it gets a bit more “hits” in the SE’s because of the Social Media factor.

    I do agree though, that on-page SEO, link building and GREAT content will never go out of style. You have to do it, you have to work at it, and you need to make sure you re-visit it again and again.

    I think the bottom line is a sort of an 80/20 principle. 80% SEO work, 20% Social Signals. 🙂

    • Jason Lancaster

      Erika – I agree that “not caring” is extreme. My headline was meant to garner some attention, but the reality is that it’s smart to think about social media whenever you’re marketing something online.

      To your point about two sites with the exact same optimization, subject, etc., I have two thoughts:

      1. Two sites of the same quality should have roughly the same social profile, at least if social media is truly “natural.”

      2. If one site has dramatically more social signals than another, yet both have the same type of links, similar content, etc., couldn’t that be an indicator of social media profile manipulation?

      Frankly, as easy as it is to manipulate social media right now, I’d be very, very hesitant to place much weight on that particular signal if I was running a search engine. Perhaps if Twitter and Facebook enforce some sort of verification that would change, but right now it’s just too easy to simulate a quote “viral” social exchange.

  • lizstraws

    I don’t think you can discount social signals so easily because they have an indirect, second-tier value. Being promoted and linked to in social networks increases exposure among relevant audiences, who may visit the site, link to the site, buy from site etc.

    So, while Twitter and Facebook as direct link building sources are less important, they still do have a place in the SEO repertoire. They are just made more valuable according to the social profile and network of the accounts distributing the links.

    • Jason Lancaster

      lizstraws – I agree that social media can have other benefits, but what you’re describing doesn’t pertain to SEO. As an online marketer, I absolutely agree that social media should be part of any game plan.

      As an SEO in the here and now, I’m not too worried about it. The fact is, a few extra tweets or facebook shares aren’t going to make nearly as much difference as a handful of links from relevant blogs. I’m not doing my job for my clients if I don’t emphasize good quality content and good quality links ahead of everything else.

    • Adam Beaumont

      Definitely agree with this, driving targeted traffic to your site is what SEO is all about I guess so if you get targeted traffic from other sources then this is a win win situation.

  • Dallas SEO

    true…. social networks do not give you much link juice at all.

  • Jamie Fairbairn

    I agree with your points Jason. I’ve read a few posts on this subject recently and if nothing else, I hope it helps Twitter users in particular focus on building a useful and influential set of followers rather than just playing the numbers game.

    I think the danger in this is that many small business owners will take this as a signal to focus more on social media rather than link building and unique content generation, which you rightly say are for more important.

    • Jason Lancaster

      Thanks! One of the reasons I wrote this article is because a small business owner contacted me and wanted to know if we were going to start chasing Twitter and Facebook as part of our efforts to help them rank for a moderately competitive local search term…yet this same person has been reluctant to invest heavily in links or content. The public should focus on content and links and ignore the rest.

  • smith greal

    SEO and SEM are the hot jobs right now in the world of marketing. More and more companies are turning to SEO campaigns and expert forecasters believe this trend will continue.

  • Darryl Manco

    Social Signals for SEO. Hum. Social signals for inbound marketing yes.

  • Craig Smith

    Well since Facebook has turned it’s pages as public pages, it might give some link juice for creating a page, or business page. But I don’t see Facebook as SEO link juice. Its the social buzz route, and good for catching some extra traffic or a wide untargeted net for maybe gain some traffic. Not long term potential there though.

    The social signals IMO is just a new “upsale” for any SEO campaign. I would like to see some real statistics or a case study of just social media done to a website and see how it ranks in the Search Engines. I personally think social media is a waste of time and effort. Email marketing, maybe.