There’s an awful lot of conflicting opinion out there, so let’s see if we can cut through it as best as we can.
I was writing an article on the pros of using social video apps last week, and as I typed the sentence “video can help with your visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs) and the more engagement the video receives in the form of likes, comments and shares the higher up your video will appear” I realised that I didn’t know if that second part was actually true.
Does any piece of content you create, whether it’s a video, an article or a blog-post, have a better chance of ranking higher on SERPs if it has more social signals (likes, retweets, repins, comments etc.) than a similar piece of content with less social ‘worth’?
We know that Google categorically states that content will naturally rank higher if it’s of a good quality: a well written piece of more than a few hundred words in length, with relevant internal links, a relevant headline, no misspellings, no spam and not too many ads, that’s also optimised for mobile users and isn’t purely a keyword-stuffing exercise.
Theoretically content like this will also naturally pick up more social signals and be shared more, purely because it stands out from the other, murkier examples out there.
But going back to my earlier point, if theoretically two different pieces of content are of an equal quality, with similar attention paid to good SEO practices, that feature on websites of an equal authority, will one rank higher than the other if it has been shared on Twitter more frequently or liked on Facebook more?
Perhaps I’m looking at this in a far too simplistic ‘black and white’ manner, but I think it would be useful to know.
A rudimentary search of various digital marketing websites, including our own, reveals much conjecture, most of it not particularly up-to-date.
In fact most articles were published in 2012, and state confidently that popularity on Google+ is certainly used as a ranking factor. But of course we all know what became of that.
Possibly the soundest advice that came from this flurry of speculation was featured in Charles Duncombe’s thoughts on the subject:
As it will be easy to manipulate social media signals and as Google will have no powers to penalise this manipulation, surely the emphasis Google is going to place on it is not going to be as prominent as some people predict?
Yes, social media can be used to gain other Google influencing factors such as links from people who see your social media campaigns. But when you are investing in social media for SEO I would treat it as a means to an end rather than the end in itself.
Basically pure social signals can’t be trusted as they’re too easy to manipulate, however social is a vital tool in helping to build links to your content, and if those links are of a naturally earned quality, than Google will see that as a vote of confidence and rank it higher.
The most recent comment I can find that comes directly from Google, is fairly blunt on the matter.
Here’s the most recognisable web-spam expert in the world, Matt Cutts, with the official word from Google circa January 2014:
Social signals are not taken into account.
As far as doing special specific work to say “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.
Pretty definitive then. This is also a change from an announcement in 2010 to say that Google was using Twitter data to effect rankings, but this also came to a stop later on when Google+ was introduced.
But hey, we can speculate on the past internal machinations of Google’s algorithm changes for another 15 future iterations, but it will be a futile exercise.
Currently Google has been pretty busy updating its algorithm to give prominence to websites that are mobile optimised, and this has pretty much dominated SEO conversation for the last few months.
There is however a fairly speculative article published this week in Search Engine Watch that suggests that Google has in fact turned up social signals as a ranking factor, and engagement metrics are slowly showing a movement in that direction.
But this seems too early to tell and may just be a temporary experiment. There has also been another classic Google ‘about-face’ this year, as it was announced in February that Tweets will begin to appear in Google search results in real-time.
According to The Guardian, since the collapse of the original deal to use Twitter data in 2010…
Google had to crawl Twitter’s site, which takes more time, but the new deal means that the musings of Twitter’s 284m users will appear as soon as they are posted. The data will come from an automatic data feed that Google is expected to pay Twitter an undisclosed sum for.
As of this very month, the update is being rolled out for mobile users in the US, with a desktop update to follow shortly and the introduction to other countries in the next few months.
As for what this means for content marketers? If you’ve created content and have shared it on Twitter, and that tweet has been optimised for search (relevant keywords and hashtags) then there’s a chance a search on Google will bring up that Tweet, leading directly to your content.
Now we can speculate endlessly whether this new feature takes into account signals like retweets, engagement, number of account followers and how recent the tweet was sent.
Or we can all just do the sensible thing and carry on making the best quality content we possibly can.