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The Mystery of Social Signals in SEO

WebiMax Contributor, September 11, 2012

When you watch TV this week, you may see ads for a new show called Elementary, which is another take on the original Master of Deduction, Sherlock Holmes. In the past five years, Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved detective stories have been adapted several times in film and television, and their popularity made me wonder how Mr. Holmes would handle SEO. In particular, I wondered how he would see social signals in the overall scheme of things. While nobody knows for certain what Google's algorithm is, there are certainly some clues that might help us deduce social signals. Let's take a look at what we do know.

When the Penguin Update came out, Google dropped the hammer on many Black Hat SEO practices. These included:

  • Keyword Stuffing
  • Overuse of Exact Match Anchor Text Links
  • Link farms
  • Links from Foreign Sites

Sites that used these and other Black Hat practices were penalized and saw their rankings drop significantly. Google tried to establish the fact that relevancy was king in rankings. Sites that had fresh content and quality backlinks were the ones that were going to appear on the first page because they would be the ones most useful to the user. With that in mind, how do social signals figure into the mix?  What about votes of confidence from social shares?  Do they really count?

In 2010, Danny Sullivan wrote an article in Search Engine Land that highlighted how Google and Bing might be using social data from Twitter and Facebook to help determine rankings.  Matt Cutts, the head of Google's webspam team, responded with this YouTube video on his channel. He suggested that social signals figured greatly in Google's real-time search results and confirmed that Google was dabbling into the idea of author authority. Still, he didn't reveal too much about social signals' weight in rankings.

In the time since then, several events have occurred that may bring more light to where social signals come into play.  Twitter and Google's deal officially expired in 2011, which led to the end of real-time search results.

We discussed the Twitter fire-hose being closed off earlier this year on You Tube

Google bought several patents in the earlier part of the year, creating buzz that it's looking to add more social elements into search results. Finally, Cutts weighed in just last month and said that Google was unable to crawl Twitter's pages for 1.5 months after their deal ended, which gave him some cause for concern over third party platforms. However, he did again reiterate that Google is always looking for those who are important because they'll bring relevancy and quality searches.

What concerns would Google have with third party platforms.  Google has consistently said it does not weigh +1's seriously into it's algorithm at this time and considers Search Plus your World more at this point.

So we have some clues and hints, but what does this all mean? David Harry of Search Engine Watch released a great blog post several months ago that takes an in-depth look at social signals and shows that however they figure into the algorithm right now, being involved in different social channels can certainly increase your visibility and overall authority. Those who follow and are fans of you or your business will more likely link to you, retweet an interesting thing you said or tell others about you. These will organically boost other signals that are known to figure into the algorithm right now.

But this is in direct contradiction to what Google is saying, other than the OG (Open Graph) argument.  Fact of the matter is that social signals have an indirect relationship to increased visibility in SERP's and can be explained as mentioned above.  Improving your impressions (and CTR) the Search Plus your World and other avenues will positively lift your site pages in the rankings.

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg recently commented that the company is "uniquely positioned" and it's search team are working on ways to develop its Search Engine for purposes other than People Search.

Also, as you might have noticed, I used relevancy several times in the blog post. Google is all about producing the best results for its users. It wants websites to build real relationships and followings. Perhaps, that's why there are whispers that guest blogs produced by paid spam sites might be next on Google's hit list. These disingenuous routes to produce fake results are a thing of the past. A strong social media presence with fresh content and active engagement is something that people who use the web want.

Just as the days of getting 500 bookmarks and 500 directory submissions have long passed we anticipate the days of buying mass quantities of low quality blog advertisement posts (poorly spun and disingenuous content) are next on the radar.

For example, Webimax uses a variety of techniques for its clients to help bolster their social media presence. The goal is to create a voice that others who are connected to you will find interesting and engaging. This will include actively approaching leaders in the industry; encouraging users to participate in contests, surveys, or polls; and building a network of different social media platforms around your brand. All of these things will make you more relevant, which should make you friendlier to Google.

Social Signals is such a great term when we understand it's meaning.  Deeper than tweets and shares related to an article or piece of content.  Within our daily lives we stumble upon many actions we give off and receive from people in our lives.  A cashier at the checkout with the attitude signals to us that you may not shop their again.  A construction worker who holds the door for an older person at the convenience store signals you to take notice of his uniform.  These are all great signals of trust, right?

Not necessarily.  In these examples; Consider the cashier had a bad day because she couldn't pick up all three of her kids from day care on time and got hit with a hefty fee.  Consider the gentle construction worker who held the door generously had intent to not draw suspicion of his shoplifting plot.  These certainly are extreme examples but lay the groundwork for sentiment and trust and how we reward those with it.

Maybe this is Matt Cutts whole argument for Google against truly evolving the algorithm to further heavily weight social signals.  How can you really know (and rank) trust and authority socially?

This is the problem Google will likely be more transparent about by the end of the year with the evolution of digital media, specifically mobile and tablet usage.  Users are relying on social signals to form opinions on local businesses and other services.  If Google can't find a way to incorporate these signals into it's main engine then it will lose out, not to other search engines but to other distribution platforms such as social mobile applications.

If Google does not use social signals in its rankings or at least start to use them more in the near future, how relevant can its search results really be? It doesn't take a world class detective to tell you that social signals will factor in SEO for years to come.  But will we be thinking of Google when we are are considering them?

Co Author:  Christopher Hardwick, WebiMax

Need an Expert Contributor?

Ken Wisnefski is a seasoned web entrepreneur and a frequent contributor to news outlets and business publications. Ken’s vast knowledge of how to make online businesses succeed has made him a sought after consultant from businesses wishing to improve their online initiatives. Contact pr@webimax.com to collaborate!


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