Just How Important Are Social Signals For SEO Really?

There is one undeniable truth in SEO: the SEO community loves a good debate. Even better if it’s backed by anecdote and speculation, and fuelled by ever growing frustration with Google’s lack of transparency!

The favourite debate these days? How important are social signals for SEO? The relationship between social signals and SEO is quite unlike any other debate, because there’s simply too much data to test accurately. So, let’s look at the evidence and you can decide!

What Google says about social influence on search results

How Important Are Social Signals - What Google Says

In 2010, Matt Cutts, Google’s former spam boss, talked about how Google’s web search quality team was developing algorithms to use Facebook and Twitter to understand reputation and implement it as a social signal. In particular, tweets were (and still are) most relevant for ‘real time’ search features.

Just How Important Are Social Signals For SEO Really - Twitter

Matt Cutts also commented that if Google can’t crawl a page, they can’t rank a page. For most Facebook users, this means that your feed and your groups are excluded from search results. Your page, however, is indexable. Lately Facebook has introduced SEO friendly mark up for events and notes promoted on the platform.

By 2014, Google had released a statement insisting that Google does not consider follower numbers or activity as part of the overall SEO rankings for a website. Matt Cutts cited the speed at which social updates and the risk of social networks blocking Google (and there’s a famed dislike between Google and Facebook) as the key reasons for not investing in social driven ranking.

“As far as doing special, specific work to …say “oh, you have this many followers on Twitter, or this many likes on Facebook”, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.”

Matt Cutts again brought the discussion back to author and brand identity rather than direct ranking signals. Note that Matt Cutts has always been careful to say “sites like Twitter and Facebook” rather than “social media’ – possibly because Google’s own (struggling) social network Google Plus has long been considered a massive factor in rankings and is intrinsically linked to Google My Business local search.

Google search quality guidelines and official Webmaster Central Blog

The Webmaster Central Blog actively encourages users to create social media stories – in a blog published in 2012. There’s been surprisingly little ‘official’ content on social best practice since. Google’s most recent SEO Handbook clearly states that spammy or fake social media pages are in violation of Google search rules and pose a risk to SEO.

So in short, SEO is not impacted by social media signals, right?

And yet, the debate rages on. Google’s recent lack of information on the relationship between search results and social media activity has meant that SEO communities worldwide still test and refine theories around the topic. The issue is, there’s a lot of missing pieces in a very big puzzle. Both social sites (especially Facebook and Instagram) and Google have highly complex algorithms and a LOT of variables for SEOs to consider.

What credible studies have revealed – and it’s not what Google says

Search Engine Land, SEO Roundtable, Searchmetrics, Moz, Webmaster World and even Black Hat World (a very resourceful, if not compliant, black hat SEO forum) have all investigated the link between SEO and social signals. The results are, more often than not, in contradiction to Google’s statements.

Moz, perhaps the most credible source of SEO information on earth, has said:

“While any answer to this question is highly debatable, I believe that social signals have both a direct and indirect impact on organic search rankings. Direct impact comes from:

  • Number of people that like your brand on Facebook
  • Number of Facebook shares
  • Number of Twitter followers
  • Number of tweets mentioning your brand name or including a link to your website
  • Number of people that “have you in their circles” (Google+)

Indirect impact comes from:

  • Increased inbound links and citations due to improved online visibility/brand awareness
  • Increased positive reviews (in Google Local , Yelp, etc.) due to happier customers
  • Decreased bounce rate, higher time on site, and more repeat visitors to your website”

Moz cited the findings of a Searchmetrics study that found Facebook shares do indeed impact SEO:

How Important Are Social Signals For SEO Really - MOZ

Google has always stated that correlation and causation are not the same:

“There was an SEO that said ‘OK we see a lot of links on Facebook, and those are the pages that rank well’, but that’s correlation, not causation. There’s probably something really awesome and because it’s really awesome, it gets a lot of likes on Facebook and people decide to link to it,” Matt Cutts said.

So if Google’s not doing it, why is it happening?

Let’s assume that Google isn’t actively considering your social activity in search rankings; why would many of the world’s leading SEO researchers come to the same conclusion? Is it just correlation and causation or is it something different?

The Media Heroes Theory (as backed by industry leaders)

Media Heroes is about delivering the best quality SEO services in Brisbane. We’ve researched the relationship between SEO and social signals thoroughly so we can deliver the best possible results for our clients. Here are OUR findings.

Since the Hummingbird update, search rankings have become a lot more complex than keyword use and inbound links. Factors like time on site, bounce rate, pages per visit and other engagement factors are now key to determining search result rankings. Social media audiences are ‘pre-warmed’; that is, they know your brand, your style of writing, your products and everything there is to love about you. When they click through, they’re likely to spend longer on your site, read your blog entries, visit multiple pages, or click play on your videos.

When these statistics increase, they drag up all your Google Analytics data averages. This then feeds back to Google (and Bing if you use Bing Analytics) that your site is high quality for visitors – and the rankings are increased.

There’s also the issue of Google personalisation. If your social media followers are dedicated to your brand, they’ll visit your blog (or product pages) repeatedly. If they’re logged into a Google Account (YouTube, Gmail, Picasa, Google Play, Blogger, Google Plus, Chrome…so many to choose from) their visits to your site will be noted and your site will appear higher in their personalised view of search results. The more they click through and spend time engaging with your site, the more your rankings are increased organically.

If they’re active on Google Plus, you may even see their own connections seeing more of your content.

So, once and for all, how important are social signals for SEO?

Social isn’t giving you followed links that pump up your search performance. Search isn’t that simple. Social and search algorithms are too complex to say ‘no followed links means no SEO value’. Your business Twitter and Facebook accounts appear in search results for your name. They’re an extra layer of credibility for potential customers. More than that, they’re at the core of best practice web marketing. No one element stands alone in web marketing and your SEO should be as valuable to your brand as your social media properties are. When they work together, the way that smart, savvy web marketing does, there is a CLEAR AND UNDENIABLE SEO benefit to quality social signals.

Need more information about how to make social signals work for SEO benefit? Talk to the experts at Media Heroes. We’ve done the research!