How Does Social Media Affect SEO?

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Andy Crestodina
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Do social media interactions affect search rankings? The short answer: Yes. But not how you think.

Social media activity affects rankings in several ways. But the direct benefit is very limited and the indirect benefit is widely misunderstood. In this post, we’ll deconstruct both.

First, Let’s Look at the Evidence.

The 2013 Moz Search Ranking Factors study shows that pages with Google+1, Facebook likes, tweets, and comments tend to rank higher.

search-factors

The study shows a connection between social activity and higher rank. Pages with Google +1s, Facebook likes, and tweets tend to rank higher. But this is a correlation, not causation. It’s critical to understand that difference.

Lots of things are correlated, but that does not imply that one causes the other. Consider these interesting correlations…

Age of Miss America correlates with murders by steam and hot vapors (correlation of .87)

miss-america

Number of movies Nicolas Cage appeared in correlates with drowning in swimming pools (correlation of .66)

cage

(source: Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations)

Are Nicolas Cage movies causing people to drown in pools? Can we reduce the murder-by-steam rate by crowning younger women as Miss America? Not likely. Correlations are just connections. We have to look closer to find causes.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire. Right?

Smoke doesn’t cause a fire. But catch a whiff and you’ll start looking around. Why does social activity correlate with search? Does sharing affect rankings? Does a Facebook or Twitter following affect rankings?

Directly? No. Here’s a quote from Google…

…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. – Matt Cutts, Google Webmasters YouTube Channel, 1/2014

That’s a no. But there are three actual connections between social and search. The first two are indirect correlations and the third is actual causation.

1. Sharing Can Lead to Links …and Higher Rankings

Social sharing directly increases the visibility of a page. That increased visibility means it may get noticed by a creator of content, such as a blogger, journalist, or author. That creator may mention it in a subsequent piece of content. If they linked to it, that page is then more likely to rank.

For sharing to affect rankings, a lot of things have to go right…

search-factors

The social activity (sharing) affects rank only if it increases visibility among content creators AND those people found it so useful they linked to it.

“It’s not the actual social activity that matters, but what happens as a result of that activity. Optimizing and maximizing creator impressions increases the chance of obtaining links from the group of people who power the link graph.” – AJ Kohn, Blind Five Year Old.

-2

One way to help this process along is to actively build relationships with content creators, sharing content with them specifically. This should sound familiar to anyone who understands PR.

Social influencers amplify impressions, but content creators create the ranking benefit. They include:

  • Bloggers and blog editors

  • Journalists

  • Podcasters

  • Academic Researchers

  • Event producers

If rankings are important to you, relationships with creators of content are important to you. Content creators are a hidden, but important, target audience for most businesses. But many of them don’t realize it.

2. The Correlation Between Social Media and “User Interaction Signals”

Imagine this: a visitor searches for a phrase. They now see a search results page with 10 blue links. They click one and land at a page that doesn’t seem to help them. They hit the back button. That’s a bounce (a one-page visit).

Then they click another link on the search results page and find a more helpful page. They stay for a few minutes. Maybe they click around…

Google was watching. Remember, they own the search engine, but they also probably own the browser (Chrome is the world’s most popular browser: source) and Analytics on both sites (most websites use Google Analytics: source) They know that the searcher stayed on one page much longer than the other.

click-anatomy

Search engine researchers call this the “long click.” It should be obvious that Google would use this as an indication of quality and relevance.

The specific stats in play here are “time on site” and “bounce rate.” They are both considered “user interaction signals” and show that the visitor was engaged. What else correlates with engagement? Social interactions.

Likes, shares, +1s, tweets, and comments are indications that people thought the page was good. And pages that people like tend to rank higher. Social media interactions correlate with quality and quality correlates with higher rankings.

For the record, there are other ways (beyond social media) to improve the user interaction signals on a page. Naturally, they all relate to quality.

  • Formatting: don’t hit visitors with a wall of text. Break up paragraphs, use bullet lists, bolding, internal linking, subheaders, etc.

  • Media: add multiple images, video, audio, or anything else that a visitor is likely to engage with.

  • Length: longer pages tend to rank higher for a good reason. They are more likely to be authoritative.

  • Stimulate comments: ask a question, invite dissent, spark a conversation. Comments are a type of social activity that directly affect user interaction signals.

The bottom line: If you want to rank higher, make a page that people love. Sound familiar? It should. This has been what Google has been telling us all along. Of course, you need to pay attention to keyword research and keyword usage, but focus on the visitor, the experience of humans.

A page that people are likely to share is a page that is more likely to rank.

What’s good for social is good for search.


In the world of paid traffic in which we specialize, we often discuss search versus social in terms of demand generation. Search is great at fulfilling demand, while social is unique in the digital realm for its ability to create demand.

Depending on where a customer (or lead, or blog reader) is on their journey, search and social can and should reinforce each other, and very often both play prominent roles at different points in the same path to purchase.  Chris Madden, Matchnode

 


3. How Google+ Activity Directly Affects Rankings

There are two ways in which rankings are directly affected by Google+ activity. They both rely on the searcher being logged into their Google+ account.

  1. Google+ posts rank in Google
    Actual Google+ posts rank almost instantly for phrases included in the post, for anyone who has added you to a circle. This is why smart G+ users write posts with “titles” which are usually bolded headlines at the top of the post. Text is bolded in Google by putting asterisks before and after the text.

  2. +1’d content ranks higher in personalized search results
    Google search results are personalized for people who are logged in to Google+, provided they have connected with people who have interacted with content. Rankings are directly affected. Here’s how it works:

    If Jill puts Jack in a circle, and Jack +1’s a page about buckets. That page will rank higher when Jill searches for “buckets.” She will also see that Jack likes this page, right there in the search results.

social-activity

Here’s what it would look like in the search results page.

search-social-1

Naturally, activity in other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter do not affect Google search results, and Google+ activity does not affect Bing/Yahoo search rankings. But this has a direct impact on search rankings through social activity.

Rank is Driven by Links… A Link is a Social Thing

Here’s another clue into the importance of social activity to rankings: Google considers linking to be social activity. There is a report in your Analytics that shows new links to your site. You can find it under Acquisition > Social > Trackbacks. Here’s what it looks like.

search-social-2

Not only does Google consider linking to be a social action, they report on how many times the link was clicked. This is another clue (or perhaps warning) that all links should be created with humans in mind. Yes, links cause sites to rank higher. But any link created purely for SEO reasons is spam. It is an attempt to artificially manipulate rankings.

Leveraging Indirect Benefits

If you watched me work for an hour, you’d think I was crazy. “How could THAT possibly help you sell websites in Chicago?” or “Why would that help you rank for a web design phrase?”

Rankings are an outcome, not an action. The great search optimizers are very active in social media because they understand the importance of indirect benefits.

Every aspect of modern marketing is based on relationships. Including search.

And relationships are built on social media.

I’ll leave you with a brilliant bit of insight from Sonia Simone of Copyblogger,  “Google is a mean high school girl.” You can get her to like you but not by approaching her directly. You have to get everyone else to like you first…

For additional information, you should watch How Links Work in Google.

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Comments (34)
  • I got more than a few “ah-ha” in this article Andy. None more significant than this one;

    If Jill puts Jack in a circle, and Jack +1’s a page about buckets. That page will rank higher when Jill searches for “buckets.” She will also see that Jack likes this page, right there in the search results.

    Even though Google has pulled our author bio photo from the SERPs and authorship stats from GWT, I still think and advocate the upside of having people add you to a Circle. Personalized search results on mobile and desktop will command clicks even if our bio photo doesn’t tag along – right?

    • Yes, there’s more to Google+ than Authorship. I’m sad to see that Author Stats are no longer available. I loved that report.

      But that was never the reason to be active on Google+. Facebook pictures never appeared in Google search results and they’ve got 1.3 billion users! Still, I would love to see data on what percentage of people are seeing personalized search results.

      Social media = Relationships = Authority = Rank

      …or at least that’s how it works if you’re doing it right!

  • Incredible post!

    I would add that there is a second side to search that brands don’t think about which social media has a huge impact on:

    When you search for a brand Name the social nets and Yelp! show up almost always first page. And this helps crowd out competitors. 6 of Vienna Beef’s results are third party sites. Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Wikipedia all can be set up by a business. Everyone knows Nathan’s and Sabrett have superior hotdogs but it is important they don’t show up as options on the search results without paying for AdWords and VB does a great job…or whoever was the brilliance behind their web presence.

    Not that I have uber web traffic but 95% of my inbound traffic is either direct typed URL (or bookmarked) or someone searched by name for my business.

    • You raise some good points, Howie! Brand searches are very common and although most companies rank first for their brand name, just claiming their presence on all the social networks can help them “own” page one for their own name.

      There is also some evidence (I didn’t mention it here) that if a lot of people search for a brand name, the website for that brand may get an edge in rankings in general. This is another search benefit from social media. Being a more famous brand leads to more brand-related searches, which could lead to higher rankings across the board.

      I completely disagree with your view on hot dogs. Vienna Beef is the superior dog…

  • Highly informative post as always Andy!!! I wondered if you could create an example for G+ that illustrates what you wrote here… “Actual Google+ posts rank almost instantly for phrases included in the post, for anyone who has added you to a circle. This is why smart G+ users write posts with “titles” which are usually bolded headlines at the top of the post. Text is bolded in Google by putting asterisks before and after the text.”

    • Thanks, Nina. This is a good idea. We wrote about this in the book, but we haven’t published anything specifically about Google+ in a while. I really love the ability to format text in G+ posts.

      You can give this a try. Just post something in Google+, wait a few minutes, then search for that topic in Google. If you’re logged in, you may see your own G+ post there at the top!

  • Great read as usual Andy.I’m being asked a lot these days by our clients, why do we need social? Is it really working? What is the real benefit? The shine has worn off and they are getting asked the hard questions. Their C Level guys and Board members ask them to justify the expense. Just yesterday, I used my standard response about developing relationships and connecting with their community etc.. but that is even wearing thin as I say it. We have a hard time justifying the cost to conversion ratios especially with limited data on how it indirectly impacts site traffic and search ranking. I think I have a better answer now! Thank you.
    BTW: You always restore my faith in Google +.

    • I know what you mean, Mark. Consider trying this line…

      “We need social media for the same reason we need telephones: because connecting with people is critical to our success.”

      …but then make sure to stay strategic about researching, connecting and leveraging those new connections for real benefits!

  • Awesome. Chock full of useful information and great reminders. Plus I know to run away if I ever see Nick Cage near a swimming pool.

    • Thanks, Danny. I’m declining all pool party invites from Mr. Cage…

  • Very helpful, Andy. Thank you. Just found your blog today and look forward to learning from you.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jack. Yes, the newsletter is bi-weekly and has a lot of this kind of info. I hope you find future posts as helpful as this one!

  • Hi Andy,
    I really thank you for describing the importance of social media sites to rank any site fast on Google.
    I want to tell you that i use my Facebook fan page,my twitter ,my Pinterest and my Google+ accounts to share my business.
    I discovered new information in your post which i will apply to enhance my seo rankings and I will come a gain to check your Content Marketing posts.

  • Great post. Insight about website content was particularly helpful.

  • There’s so much to absorb Andy, and you’re always helpful. My action steps are to a) blog more regularly, b) establish relationships with peeps who like my content and c) be more active in Google plus? Unfortunately I still don’t feel comfortable navigating it and haven’t used it as a resource. Any tips are welcome.

    • Those action steps look just right, Michelle! And if you’re just getting started in Google+ I’ve got something for you. Here you go…

      https://www.orbitmedia.com/blog/google-plus-guide/

      Hopefully, that post will get set you on the right path. Enjoy!

  • Very useful information, thanks Andy.
    Does the activity on social networks such as LinkedIn for SEO rankings?
    Thanks.

  • What an amazing post with so many important information, thank you

  • Great stuff Andy! Appreciate your analysis. You were careful to discuss correlation vs. causation throughout, which is so important in determining what really works. Ultimately, as you say/suggest, content that is the most relevant to the audience that seeks it gets rewarded the most. Shortcuts or manufacturing this in any way has a greater chance of failing than succeeding. Which is really the way it should be, eh?

    • Agreed. It would be bad if shortcuts worked. But it’s good that relationships matter. It’s the brilliance of Google. They’ve turned all of the editors of all the websites into the arbiters of quality. We all collectively determine the relevance and rank of every page on the internet!

  • What a load of baloney! You are just trying to justify something which is very expensive to a customer when you have no concrete evidence of return on investment. It’s a ridiculously scattergun approach which would never be used in any other industry and only really appeared (along with “reputation management”) after Google made SEO more and more difficult.

    • Networking with content creators can indeed have an affect on links, mentions and eventually search rankings. It happens for us almost everyday. And one of the best ways to network with content creators is social media. My suggestion here is to be less “scattergun” and focus on networking with people who make things, knowing that they can offer an eventual, indirect search ranking benefit.

      All aspects of marketing (including SEO) are based on relationships. I firmly believe this.

      For the record, I didn’t recommend spending money. I do recommend making friends. Also for the record, we don’t offer social media services, so this post is not a pitch in any way.

      Thanks for the comment. I hope this response adds a bit of clarity.

      • Thanks Andy. I’m sorry if it came across as a personal dig, it wasn’t meant to be. I agree with you about relationships and good content but the way some companies (I didn’t realise you don’t offer it – apologies again!!) generalise social media marketing really annoys me.

        • I truly appreciated your comment, Colin. You made a good point about the elusive ROI for social media. I like the networking benefits of social and that kind of ROI is basically impossible to measure. What’s the return on friendship?

          Someone should write a post about the uselessness of trying to measure “ROF” 🙂

  • nice article sir. thank u.

  • Love the article. And it’s easy to understand. Why is it then that all SEO companies I’ve used do not give you this info?

    And look like you lose rankings rather than increase AFTER the first meet & greet?
    Looks like I ought do my own

    • There are a lot of advantages to doing this work on your own. Here are a few…

      • First, you get to own the relationships. You can’t outsource friendship.
      • Second, you get to be the expert. You can’t outsource thought leadership!

      Happy marketing, Thea. 🙂

  • Andy – quick question. In the “trackbacks” section, that’s just measuring inbound links to your pages, correct? “Trackbacks” aren’t shares or anything like that. They’re the actual links – the citing of the copy – that’s coming from content producers (our goal), correct?

  • Enjoyed Andy’s explanation and well communicated expertise. I especially loved him pointing out to reference something they talk about all the time in your industry, create a statistic for it link back reference to where you got the stat or calculate it yourself so you get others to connect to you and quote you. NICE!

  • Great article Andy – was looking for some more in-depth analysis and references to support a session of my podcast – and I found it. Thanks.

  • I am regular reader of your blog and no doubt it all stuff is awesome. The best thing about your sharing and posting is that you always provide content that is helpful for both the newbie and experts. Looking for more stuff and tutorials.

  • Hi, Andy!

    Thank you for a very informative and well-researched article. With its ever-changing algorithms, Google has made sure to only pick up the best and quality websites of different niche and industries. And now, it has included social media in its arsenal as a way to effectively index quality contents.

    Google recently released its Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (EAT) system of evaluating websites. Basically, humans rate websites based on the quality of their content, the writers, and web design. A podcast episode I listened to a while ago featured how EAT is determined and how it affects a website’s SEO: https://blog.spinweb.net/spinradio-episode-54-how-trustworthiness-and-risk-affects-your-seo. How do you think this will impact social media effects on SEO?

  • Hi Andy,

    This is really great stuff! I explain the role of social media sharing in content marketing in my Digital Marketing class, but you do a great job here building depth into an easy-to-follow and sensible structure! Well done!

    Best,
    Neil

  • Hey Andy, Thanks for this article. This is very informational. Is It still relevant in 2018?

 
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