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What Does Social Media Have to Do With SEO?

May 22, 2013

Nothing and Everything
Image Credit: EuroMagic
In 2007 I wrote:
My fear, with all the hype about social media marketing, is that people new to search marketing will believe it's what SEO demands and what SEO is all about.

It isn’t. Not by a long shot.
And yet by 2008 I was writing:
If you're marketing websites, scary as it may sound, you need to learn about social media.
So what changed?

Even before Panda and Penguin, how Google determined the relevancy of any given web page was changing. Traditionally, the main relevancy signals that search engines looked at were:
  • On-page relevance
  • Trust and authority
  • Links
With minor changes, Google still looks at on-page factors and the trust / authority of pages similarly to how they always have. But links are a different story. As part of Google's original algorithm (and what made it such a great search engine), they treated links as a vote of confidence for a page. Their PageRank algorithm was and still is sophisticated enough to also understand that not all links are created equal. Google is able to consider the importance of the page that a link is on to decide how much credit (or credibility) that link should pass to the page it's linking to.

And this worked fairly well for quite a while.

But website owners being greedy and SEOs being...well...SEOs, links became a commodity to be bought and sold in order to provide higher rankings for web pages. One consequence of that was the scarcity of people linking to stuff they liked just because they liked it. Links pages that most websites used to have in order to provide additional resources for their site visitors are now thought of as "spammy" and rarely exist anymore. Sure, bloggers might still mention other sites that they like and even provide links to them, but many blog platforms automatically add the NoFollow attribute to those links, causing them to not be counted by Google. Plus, bloggers also understand the value of a link and don't always disclose whether any money or gifts exchanged hands.

Beyond the gaming of links, however, the trouble with counting links as votes is that not everyone has a website or a blog. How do you count the votes of the average teenager or mom or business manager?

This is where social media comes into play.

It's simple. Anyone can quickly and easily tweet, Facebook, Google+, Reddit, or Yelp their opinions about anything and everything.

With the ability to discuss news articles, blog posts, websites, business establishments, brands, universities, restaurants, and just life in general at the tip of the average person's fingertips, it would be ridiculous for search engines not to pay attention.

While officially Google claims they're not directly factoring social signals into their ranking algorithms, I don't buy it for a second. They would be completely and utterly remiss not to, and they're not that dumb. In fact, they're pretty smart.

This is why my 2008 quote is even truer today than it was when I wrote it. If you're marketing a business, having a strong social media presence is no longer optional. It is essential.

But just like links, not all social media signals or mentions are created equal. Don't think that you can just create social media accounts, hook them up to the RSS feeds of your content and be done with it. The social media links back to your content (which generally have the NoFollow attribute on them) won't provide any sort of signal to Google unless you truly participate.

If you want your "vote" to count in social media, here are a few tips you need to remember:

Be selective in whom you follow.

If you follow back everyone who follows you, your profiles will be less likely to be trusted. Just as Google's PageRank algorithm can determine trustworthy pages based on who links to them, Google can also determine trustworthy social media accounts in the same way. If you're following spambots, you're not paying attention. And if you're not paying attention, why should Google trust you?

Be selective in what you recommend.

If you tweet or retweet low-quality content (be it your own or others') it's going to be noticed. Perhaps not by Google, but certainly by authority accounts who might otherwise have followed you. Which leads me to the next tip:

Your accounts must be followed by other authorities in your space.

Authorities don't get to be authorities by following just anyone. They pick and choose based on who they themselves feel are qualified and trustworthy. Therefore, if other highly trustworthy people follow you, there's a good chance you're trustworthy as well.

Have a byline and use Rel=Author on all your content.

It's imperative to associate a name and face with all of the content on your website these days, in order to ensure that Google knows it's trustworthy. If you haven't already, get your site up to speed with the Google Authorship program as soon as possible.

Install Twitter Card code on your content pages.

If your target audience is on Twitter, you should definitely be participating there. And if you are, then you also need to add the Twitter Card code to your site. This adds more information and images to any content that you or others promote from your site. Right now, Twitter Cards give you a huge advantage over your competitors who aren't yet using it (it's fairly new). If you use WordPress, I highly recommend the Yoast WordPress SEO Plugin for this feature as well as the Rel=Author attribute mentioned above (and lots of other features as well!).

While it can take a lot of time to build up trustworthy social media profiles, in the long run it will be well worth it. Think about it. If your profiles are considered trustworthy, then every piece of content you mention will surely have a better chance of being noticed by Google. Of course, your mention alone isn't going to provide much weight, especially if you're talking about your own content. But if other trustworthy social media profiles are also citing that same content, you can be certain that it will be a very strong signal to Google.

Now, I can't tell you with 100% certainty that this is what Google is doing today. But if they're not, surely they will be very soon. In fact, in Google's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts' latest Webmaster Video, "What should we expect in the next few months in terms of SEO for Google?," he said that they were "working on a completely different system that does more sophisticated link analysis."

Feel free to draw your own conclusion as to what that means!


Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of Jill Whalen High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Adam said:
Hi Jill,
A quick question.

Do you feel there are drawbacks to using widgets like "Add This" to add social sharing functions to a website as opposed to installing the twitter and facebook code directly?

The widgets are so easy to use and get the sharing job done but do they lack the information Google might look at for to rank pages/sites?

 Jill Whalen said:
@Adam, they're bad, but only because they totally slow down your site. Otherwise, a tweet is a tweet is a tweet.
 Jeff Ostroff said:
Jill, we have been in Google's Authorship program almost a year now. A few weeks back we went on our DMCA prowl again, looking for sites who stole some content off our site. As usual, we are boiling mad to find sites who stole our content, and they rank higher than us, and WE have the authorship!

Some of these sites were setup in January, some in March, a few are Google Blogspot sites, and one of them was setup only 2 weeks ago, and already outranking us. It seems to me that Authorship is not working at all, or Google is ignoring it in our case. Have you heard of this happening? Any tips on what to do? We've already had almost all of them shut down a month ago, but Google's "high quality" ranking engine still has them showing up in the results, now with dead URLS. Nice going Google.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Jeff all you can really do is file the DMCA complaints. Those usually work.
 Jeff said:
We filed over 800 DMCA notices in the last year and had over 800 sites shut down, still not appearing to work. Google has a strnage sense of quality when it ranks a dead URL above real quality content.
 Jill Whalen said:
Have you tried also reporting the dead sites to Google via your Webmaster Tools account?
 Anonymous said:
Yes, we report every site URL the instant it goes down after the DMCA. Somtimes it takes months for them to drop out of the index, which says to me Google is ignoring that process also, becaus eit confirms that the site was dead, then the next day Google indicates the site is being removed, but it seems to us these sites don't really get moved until possibly some later visit from heir crawler perhaps. It seems Google has been patting themselves on the shoulder the last 2 years about how good the quality is when it in many cases it has gotten much wrose, and often times I runa seearch for something and the URL is dead, or they show a 7 year old forum post as the top response to something I am searching for. There is still a lot of garbage out there, and it stinks to still see sites that are blatant MFA sites, often made up of random sentencess tolen from other web sites who rank above sites with quuality content. One other thing, Google ought to simply ingnore any links to US sites from China, Taiwan, Russia, etc, because theya re garbage inbound links, and Disavow tool does not seem to be filtering it out.
 Reg Charie said:
Jill, my own research and experiments show something a bit different.
2 years ago I wrote about the history of a SEO linking test, which, in a nutshell showed that building links had no real effect on search results positions.

There was one exception and that was social citations like retweets and G+1 votes.
These links gave the target sites a temporary, (about 9 day) boost in the rankings.
My target page went from placing mid 20s to a #1 for it's primary keyword phrase.
After the 9 days it returned to it's original place.

During that period of time I firmly held that PageRank, (links), had no effect on SERPs as they were being gamed too much for Google's liking.

Because of this undesired influence on it's data, Google went in and completely restructured PageRank to include relevance as a key factor.
With this addition the future playing field completely changed, but it was close to 2 years before Google slyly added an indication of relevance to their explanation and/or training pages about PageRank.

Panda and Penguin removed most of the bad linking influences and with the reworked PR algos, and with anchor text being devalued/turned off as a factor, open PageRank up to again be a telling influence.

You are not going to see a huge influence in *anything* that can be gamed and this pretty much includes all social media.
However, that being said, properly done social media will definitely help your business, (as a top 1% user in LinkedIn I can testify to it's value.)

Authority, including author based factors, link authority, and SM activity online will be, (is?), are factors for the new PageRank.

I think bad pages are still staying static due to the way Caffeine restructured their methodology and also due to the fact that Penguin 2.0 an updated algorithm. (not just a data refresh), and will not do a global refresh all at once.
 Belinda Summers said:
Effective tips you have here Jill. SEO and Social media must come together for better search rankings. Gone are the traditional ways of seo. Now we have social linking. Thank you Jill for the some eye openers:)
 Mary said:
I can understand how Google would be aware of social networking signals on Google+ accounts but how does Google have any idea what is going on with all the others, such as, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.? The last I heard, Google cannot get past all the passwords associated with our social net accounts.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Mary most if it is all public.
 kat drew said:
Great blog, I just wanted to add the joys of Pintrest in this social media SEO talk. People love pictures and they save them, repin them and use them in all sorts of ways and they all point back to your site, if they have taken the pic from there. If you make infomercials for your site then pinning them on pintrest is a great way of spreading your word.
 Salvador Polonan said:
Great article. Absolute true "Be selective in whom you follow." I make sure that I am following the right person in my blogs. Im using G+ and I think its trustworthy to follow individuals. I enjoyed reading your post. Very informative and I learn new ideas. Thank you for sharing.