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2012 has been a time of great transition in SEO. With Google’s Penguin update in May, we saw a concerted move away from it being duped by black hat techniques, and a move towards beginning to incorporate social signals into its algorithm.

The water’s still a bit murky when it comes to how important social signals are and will be in the landscape of SEO, but here are a few FAQs that you’ll no doubt be very interested in hearing the answers to…

Which social signals matter to search engines?

Having been widely covered, Danny Sullivan's article, What Social Signals Do Google & Bing Really Count?, answered some key questions about which social signals were important to the two biggest players in search: Google and, having overtaken Yahoo earlier this year, Bing.

Both Google and Bing corroborated the theory that those Twitter users who are deemed to be authoritative lend their authority to the pages they tweet.

However, only Bing said it also looked at how often a link had been tweeted and retweeted, while Google said that this factor was measured in “limited situations”. Bing also said it doesn’t calculate Facebook users’ authority, whereas Google says it does, but again, in limited instances.

While when Danny wrote his article back in December 2010, both Google and Bing were privy to Twitter’s firehose data (the constant stream of what people are tweeting that should carry some link credit), the firehose data deal between Twitter and Google ended in 2011 when Twitter surprised everyone and decided to go it alone in the online search & advertising racket - although Twitter did renew its social search partnership with the much-less threatening Bing.

How much does the Google algorithm rely on social signals?

In April this year, Branded3 published its Tweets vs Rankings study, in which it reported that there seemed to be a direct correlation between the number of tweets of a url and ranking.

Then, in May, Distilled highlighted that it's still not clear whether or not Google is using raw ‘Like’ numbers from any/all of the social sites yet, or to what degree this data affects SERP positioning.

However, when the Penguin update came out, Google penalised practices such as keyword stuffing, overuse of exact-match anchor text links, link farms, and links from clearly irrelevant sites.

So it’s natural and logical to assume that the void that the devaluation of these kinds of signals left has to be filled with some other kind of signals.

This, together with the fact that we know Google is moving towards an internet utopia of high-quality, author-attributed content, makes perfect sense that it definitely will be relying on social signals, but to what degree and exactly which ones, no one knows for certain.

Does more shares mean more links?

Simple logic tells us that that if content is sharable, then it’s also linkable. Your social networks on each platform follow your brand because it interests them, and naturally, they’re more likely to like, share, retweet, repin, or whatever the action is on that platform that lets them endorse your content – and therefore your brand.

Equally, if your brand publishes its industry expertise, then this content is also sharable in a slightly different way: industry blogs and sites will link back to it when they want to reference it in their own work.

A link is just another kind of endorsement – one from people who have their own website or blog, and while the vast majority of your social media audience won’t tend to have their own blog or website, some will.

In terms of link acquisition, then, think of your brand’s social media channels as targeted distribution channels for the great content you’re putting on your brand’s website and blog – as well as, of course, other great content from around the web.

And even if the majority won’t be able to link back to you, that majority’s endorsements will help put your content in front of the people who will, as well as sending positive social signals to Google.

How important are authorship signals?

First there was the link graph, now there’s the social graph… And soon, we’ll have author graph that Google is building with Google+.

In July this year, Grant Crowell interviewed Sagar Kamdar, Google’s Director of Product Management on Search, also responsible for other social initiatives in search.

One of the supposed key reasons for Google implementing Authorship is to enable it to identify duplicate content – as well as low-quality, farmed content. When asked whether authorship was used by Google as a ranking signal, Sagar basically said no, but watch this space. However, while it’s not an algorithmic factor, it is a social klout signifier, which is used in the mix to weight results.

A fantastic article by Mike Arnesen, published on SEOmoz heralds the imminent arrival of AuthorRank, and insists that when it does finally come (which could be tomorrow or in two years), it’s going to have a big effect.

However, Andrea Pernici argues that Authorship profiles aren’t the be all and end all, because they can actually have a negative impact on CTR and could therefore be a bad thing for certain people/brands basically because it may confuse the average searcher (and let’s face it, they won’t know why people’s faces and names have started appearing next to some of their search results).

Andrea warns that while SEOs and others in the digital industry have been romanced by the notion of Authorship, they must also remain critical and think carefully about whether the projects they are working on with their clients really warrant this kind of attribution.

Fair point… But has Andrea perhaps overlooked the rel=“publisher” tag? This tag, if you don’t already know, is slightly (but significantly) different to the rel=“author” tag in that it links back to brand pages on Google+, not individual profiles.

And as Aaron Charlie wrote just a few months ago, while we’re not yet seeing publisher info next to results in the SERPs, we soon could be – and it would make perfect sense to, wouldn’t it?

If and when publisher info does start being rolled out, it is likely to have a big impact simply because those results that display publisher info will visually stand out from those that don’t.

And lastly, there is a hidden benefit of Authorship info being displayed in the SERPs, as covered by Matt McGee for Search Engine Land:

If a user returns to the search results after reading an author-tagged search result for a certain period of time, Google will add three additional links to similar articles from the same author below the originally clicked link.

And not only this, but other posts by the author will be also displayed if you’ve previously read one of their articles.

What’s the place of social media in the SEO landscape of the future?

As outlined in Mike Arnesen’s riveting read on SEOmoz, Google filed a patent for “Agent Rank” (whereby popular “agents” would have their content ranker higher) way back when in 2005. However, the infrastructure just wasn’t in place to implement this idea… And now, with Google+, it is.

The fact that Google has been working on this idea for at least the past seven years goes to show, I think, just how determined Matt Cutts and his team are to utilise social signals (in this case, authorship) to help it rank content – a process that it will naturally hone and get better at over time.

The challenge of integrating social signals into Google’s algorithm is undoubtedly a mammoth one, especially given the fact that these signals are coming from platforms that Google and its other search counterparts don’t actually own.

But the launch of Google+ (i.e. the impact of the +1 on rankings, and the impact of Authorship) is a move away from the reliance on these other platforms, and a move towards funnelling social media activity to a place where Google can reliably measure and use the data for its own ends.

However, as SEOs serving different industries, we must also bear in mind that Authorship will take off at different rates for different industries.

As Andrea Pernici rightly points out, SEOs in particular have a vested interest in implementing authorship for themselves and their agencies because they need to be seen to be ahead of the game as well as promote themselves as experts in their field.

What matters for SEOs may not matter so much for brands right now - until we as SEOs can convince brands to put resources into strengthening their Authorship signals.

Fi Dunphy

Published 23 October, 2012 by Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy is a Social Media Strategist at Branded3 and a contributor to Econsultancy.

1 more post from this author

Comments (23)

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Machi Jan

Good post - thou the link to ""What Social Signals Do Google & Bing Really Count?"" returns a 404 error page - not very good user experience, is it?

almost 4 years ago

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Machi Jan

The link path took a good few hours but is now fixed.

almost 4 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

"The challenge of integrating social signals into Google’s algorithm is undoubtedly a mammoth one, especially given the fact that these signals are coming from platforms that Google and its other search counterparts don’t actually own."

You make a great point, and that's why I tell my clients that Google+ is worth just a little attention. Obviously it doesn't have the reach of Facebook or Twitter, but it is content that Google can see and track and measure. Does it need to be your main focus? No, but it should be part of the mix.

almost 4 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

Absolutely Nick - and I think that, given the changing landscape of SEO and social, and their increasing interdependence, brands and website/blog owners should be chipping away at Google+ now, while the floor is still relatively clear.

Get in there early, and you could stand to do your site a lot of good in the future.

And for all those naysayers, Google has said itself (I wish I could find the direct quote) that it will die if Google+ doesn't work - which just goes to show how determined it is to make Google+ work.

First, Google needed to get SEOs on board (which I'd say it's pretty much done), who then convince the brands to buy into it, and those brands will then be incentivised to bring the customers on board. Well, that's the way it should work, anyway...

Exciting times!

almost 4 years ago

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Henri

He he, what would have happened if no one had taken up G+? Would Google have died?

If there is no one on G+, it would never work, a bit like a deserted Facebook with no friends.

People should never have taken up G+; they should have ignored it completely instead.

Why? Now we have yet another social network to content with.

But G+ will never take off the way Facebook did. Most people (outside of SEM) still don't know what G+ is and those who do know prefer to stick to FB where all their friends are.

Others like me are getting social media fatigue. FB, Twitter, G+... At least Pinterest is niche.

almost 4 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

But then that's the challenge both for Google and for SEOs, Henri - to give brands a really good reason to go over to Google+... And what better way to do this than to make it so that they'll rank higher if they're performing well on Google's own social media platform and producing quality content that's attached to their own experts? Incentivise brands in this way, and they will, in turn, incentivise their customers to help them achieve their SEO goals.

It's not necessarily set in stone that Facebook will always be as popular as it is now - things can and have changed drastically when it comes to web trends. And, of course, that's not to say that Facebook won't be as popular as it is now, either. It just depends on how well it and its competitors evolve, doesn't it?

There's so much at stake here that Google really has to innovate in order to stay alive.

Watch this space, I say...

almost 4 years ago

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Holly Dewsbury

We've been well aware for sometime now regarding Googles changes and overall focus drawing more attention to UX and to social signals. Where brands can derive most value is that from ensuring all channels are optimised for search and blending this with their online content strategy to form a cohesive strategy.
G+ is an emerging channel and by saying it will never take off, I feel is a tad hasty. Google+ has a lot more potential, wait and see! Future trends pending, I see G+ being more integrated with our other channels to give a boost , this includes wrapping up google+ account holders via their other services, remember Youtube and Gmail and needing one to have the other ? I see a pattern....

Great article!

Holly
Lakestar Mccann

almost 4 years ago

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marry john

I do believe that Google is working on using data from Google Plus to build an Agent Rank/Author Rank/User Rank that may influence Web search results rankings

almost 4 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

Thanks Holly! Great point about the interdependence of YouTube and Gmail and the emerging pattern. Google aint stupid, and introducing AuthorRank is a really savvy move - one more step towards making the Internet more social.

And, like lots of social platforms now, which give more popular content more exposure, Google is using humanpower to help it decide what's most useful and relevant. Very smart.

almost 4 years ago

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Mike Rizzo

Great Post, what do people see in the future more or less impact from social?

almost 4 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

Cheers Mike! I'm very much of the social-is-the-future school... Anyone else?

almost 4 years ago

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Kavin Paulson

Hi Fi Dunphy,

It’s pretty much understandable that Google+ will serve as the basic infrastructure for Google’s social search in the future. But, don’t you think other popular social networks/platforms should adopt the idea of data sharing at least to some extent and actively be a part of the social signal mechanism? Don’t you think such collaboration will mutually benefit all of us? (Including Google which instead of relying only on Google+ (which has limited active users), can consider other popular platforms as well). A better social search may become possible with such kind of collaboration. Of course, privacy issues need to be addressed adequately. But eh ….. Obviously Facebook won’t be interested :)

almost 4 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

Hello Kavin,

When you say that other sites should be sharing their data, sharing it with whom? One another? And by data, do you mean the kind of stuff users are searching for, for example?

I guess there's plenty of data out there from Twitter and public Facebook profiles/pages, for example, that enable social listening, but G+'s API is yet to be thrown into the mix, so that's a stumbling block... However, very coincidentally, I did hear a whisper from a good source only a few days ago that this is imminent (next few months).

There's no doubt that there should be more data sharing going on and that collaboration would be beneficial to the industry and to users, but realistically, when there's advertising revenue at stake, I don't think it's going to happen 'for the greater good'.

It's an interesting time for social search though, isn't it?

With Facebook having already done (what I consider to be) the hard stuff first - i.e. garnering so many account holders, globally, and making its platform the number one online space for people to communicate and share content - it means that it can now concentrate on improving its search algorithm and developing itself as a social search engine. It just needs to be careful with pushing advertising in people's faces (I've started to get a bit hacked off by recommendations for brands/products I don't care about in the slightest - it all feels a bit sudden, pushy, and very transparent).

I think Google's definitely got its work cut out with G+, and while the idea of authorship is genius in terms of making SEOs and brands buy into it, it remains to be seen whether the average user will bother checking it out and committing to it as they have done to Facebook. Brands will have to offer something really special if they're going to win people over (although Cadbury UK is showing, without a doubt, that this is achievable).

I'm also excited to see the impact of the next generation of social platform - Medium and Branch (by the creators of Twitter): http://www.branded3.com/b3labs/could-medium-branch-revolutionise-the-way-we-use-the-web/

Interested to hear your thoughts!

almost 4 years ago

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Kavin Paulson

Some interesting points Fi Murphy.

My comment refers to Google’s initiative to incorporate social signals into their algorithm. I’m talking about the kind of collaboration Google had with twitter (deal now expired), similarly partnership between Bing and Facebook.

At a time when Google is in the process of incorporating social signals into the algorithm, shouldn’t Google consider having collaboration with other social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn instead of relying only on Google+ (for social signals) so that the future social search may become much advanced and relevant to the users (Though some experiments and expert opinions suggest that Google considers social signals from Twitter and Facebook , even Google confirmed it when they had a deal with Twitter, it’s still not clear to what extent they consider these signals when it comes to SERP ranking).

Social platforms should also come forward for a mutual cooperation with Google so that even they can be benefitted in terms of traffic and sign ups. It’s not something impossible, when Bing and Facebook can work things out why not other platforms, but understandably it’s not that easy too. But possibly when it comes to social signals Google should take all popular platforms into consideration so that social signal may become a stronger ranking factor which in turn will immensely help to improve the quality of search results. But as we can see, going forward Google will most probably consider Google+ (only or majorly) when it comes to social signals. Though it makes business sense, it’s not a great idea from a user point of view.

almost 4 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

You're right there Kavin - it would be the best thing for users if signals from all the major social platforms were taken into account.

But I suppose the reason why the likes of Facebook and Twitter aren't collaborating with Google (and Twitter has now partnered up with Bing anyway) is because they know they're on to a good thing of their own, plus they've got what Google doesn't - a really successful and widely used social network.

Why give their data to Google, the ultimate search competitor, when they can go head to head with them in the social search arena?

almost 4 years ago

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Kavin Paulson

Yes, I agree, both the social networking giants don’t really see the necessity to collaborate with Google. It makes sense when Facebook decides not to, given the social network's strong user base, influence and its future ambitions. But I don’t see a reason why other platforms shouldn't collaborate with Google including Twitter.

When you talk about social search, undoubtedly Twitter and Facebook can prove to be dominant players. But Google’s social search in the future will be completely different from the internal social search offered by Twitter and Facebook. They can’t compete with Google’s social search with their current internal search infrastructure, but they can really be a good alternative. If they seriously want to take Google head on in social search, they have to launch search engine, even Mark Zuckerberg hinted about Facebook’s search ambitions recently. I have always had this question in my mind; what if Facebook launches a search engine? But that’s more simply said than done; Bing tried but couldn’t make a significant impact.

I would say, the question you have raised is debatable :)

over 3 years ago

Oliver Ewbank

Oliver Ewbank, Digital Marketing Manager at Koozai

Great post - if you are ignoring social you will be left behind in one way or another. Google love pushing their own products so Google+ is now imperative.

over 3 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

Thanks Oliver, glad you enjoyed it.

Kavin, thanks for coming back to me. On the other hand, you could argue that Google's social network can't compete with those of the likes of Twitter and Facebook, rather than the other way around being more of a factor.

Enticing users over from other social networks they've been loyal to for years is a really tough gig and, I think, the hardest thing out of the two to pull off - especially when others are so so popular.

As for Twitter, it's paired up with Bing now, and I certainly think it's less of a case of what if Facebook launches a search engine, but when.

over 3 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

That's right - and i think that while many people in the industry have been happy to just sit back and say that it's impossible to quantify the value of social media, the real experts are forging ahead and making attempts at doing so.

While it is hard, measuring the value of social media is *definitely* possible - especially now that the weight of social media in the SEO mix is becoming more and more tangible.

over 3 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

Thanks, glad you found it useful.

over 3 years ago

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amit

Well, why are we not talking about the social bookmarks as a part of the social signals? A social bookmark is a more direct way of endorsing a link.

G+ is being pushed down the throat of sem community by Googleas they are desperate. And desperation leads to many illogical steps. So it makes a good sense to give g+ a fair attention to take away some early mover benefits :)

Great post. Hitting the 'signals ' right away.

over 3 years ago

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Naomi

I'm sure I'm not the only one who is super-frustrated about the way that Google applies its method to the non-Google social networks. It doesn't seem right to skew the search engine in favor of those who use Google Plus (though I understand why it is done).

over 3 years ago

Fi Dunphy

Fi Dunphy, Social Media Strategist at Branded3

No, it doesn't, does it Naomi? But yes, there is a reason - and, of course, Google is a huge-money business that wants to reign supreme over its competitors - and it knows exactly how to go about it..!

over 3 years ago

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