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It's no secret that search engines are increasingly looking at social signals such as tweets or Facebook Likes as part of their fast evolving algorithms.

The arrival of Google+ and subsequent launch of brand page functionality has focused the spotlight on social signals as a factor in influencing search engine visibility.

As part of the research for our latest Quarterly Digital Intelligence Briefing, we looked at the impact this trend is having on digital marketers. Here, we have also talked to some leading search experts about their thoughts on this subject.

A survey for our third Quarterly Digital Intelligence Briefing, produced in partnership with Adobe, found that only 25% of company marketers currently regard social signals as 'very important' for determining search rankings. Tellingly, when asked how important they would be in three years' time, the percentage increased to 57%.

But, as the chart below shows, only 6% of responding companies and 12% of agencies say that social signals are having a major impact on search and social strategies, which emphasises the fact that most marketers are in 'wait-and-see' mode for something which will inevitably gain momentum.

to what extent are social signals impacting organisations' search and social media strategies - Adobe / Econsultancy Quarterly Digital Intelligence Briefing (Social Data)

Why are social signals becoming more important? 

While social signals are something merely on the radar for most businesses, the bottom line is that marketers who have recognised that the future of search is already here can gain a significant competitive advantage.

Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director at bigmouthmedia, explains why this trend should not be ignored:

Social signals are used, at the very least, to validate traditional link signals. For example, a page that appears to have many inbound links and is relatively young but which has earned no social signals is a statistical outlier. Google is upfront about being suspicious about statistical outliers. Avoiding Google's suspicion is important in SEO.

What's not in doubt is the ability social media successes have at showing content worthy of links to a large community of people able to create those links. All SEO campaigns should have social elements.

One of the reasons why social signals have not shaped the search marketing landscape more quickly is because of the ability to game the system, which has limited the extent to which they have influenced search algorithms.

Teddie Cowell, SEO Director at Guava, adds:

Social signals are absolutely increasingly important. However, social signals are also incredibly easily spammed, which is why up until recently they may not have been used as much as people suspect. Think review astro turfing, comment spam, twitterbots, etc.

The value of social signals actually depends heavily on user authentication, which is a complex problem often overlooked by so-called social media gurus. Fundamentally, search engines need to more reliably tell who you are, whether you are real or not, and combine that with your activity online; or else even with all the hype, without authentication mechanisms social signals actually are nothing but noise and have negligible value.

The arrival of Google+

Google+ is the most tangible link yet between search and social, and something which is helping to accelerate the evolution of SEO. Ian Harris, Director at the Search Laboratory, explains why this is such an important development: 

The evidence for social within SEO is mounting. The fact that Google+ is built around Circles means that recommendations are from known individuals. It is very hard to trick or spam. Spammers could invent armies of Google+ users, but these are useless outside circles. 

Therefore, as Google+ gathers momentum, we expect to see the signals it creates reflected heavily in search results.

And, according to Teddie Cowell: 

The AgentRank and Crowdsensus algorithms show that Google is focusing its effort heavily towards user authentication and scoring. Google+ is also a recent and key part of solving that problem, because finally Google has a decent user authentication platform. So from now on I expect the rate of influence of social signals to pick up dramatically.

Already Google+ accounts provide a way to authenticate the original sources of content online better - think 'Authorship Markup'. With +1 and the stream data Google also have a better method of seeing popular content.

The growth of Google+ and use of brand pages will become increasingly important for companies wanting to cross-pollinate search and social activity.  

But there is plenty more evidence that only a minority of companies are dipping their toes in the water. The State of Social 2011 survey, carried out by Econsultancy in partnership with LBi and bigmouthmedia, found that only 14% of responding organisations were incorporating Google+ into their social media activities.

More than half of companies (56%) surveyed felt they had not moved quickly enough on Google+, compared to only 16% who said they had. It is clear that many marketers feel they may be slow off the mark here, though these numbers may have increased since this particular survey was carried out in September, before the launch of Brand Pages in November.   

Social signals and paid search

It’s not just search engine optimisation which needs to be calibrated for social signals. Marketers need to think about digital campaigns which integrate paid search and social activity, something which is made easier by Google’s efforts to join up the dots. 

More words of wisdom from Andrew Girdwood:

Google+ pages for businesses should be explicitly tied into AdWords accounts via social extensions. This lets ads accrue +1s, qualify for the recommended annotation more quickly and benefit from the extra click through rate the annotation brings. This interaction between Social and PPC is very important.

What else should marketers be doing to join up search and social?

For the recent Quarterly Digital Intelligence Briefing survey about social data and social signals, we asked marketers and agencies what they (or their clients) were doing to integrate search and social media optimisation. Here are some of the best (unattributable) comments around what companies are doing now:   

Social optimisation 

Reprioritising SEO focus away from traditional site optimisation to social optimisation - providing customers every means to engage with the site and influence Google into improving relevance to products and increase ranking in SERPs.

Integrated content strategies 

We are actively developing content strategies that are separate from, yet complementary, to our website content strategy. We have dedicated resources managing social media engagement.

Shareable content  

Becoming more active on social networks like Twitter and actively engaging following to increase influence. Also creating more ‘share-worthy’ content. 

Socially focused campaigns

Making their search strategies more social focused - building real, long lasting relationships with bloggers and writing content with and for them and the customers rather than the search engines. 

Linus Gregoriadis

Published 16 December, 2011 by Linus Gregoriadis

Linus Gregoriadis is Research Director at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn or Google+.

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