Countless articles have been written over the past few years about the influence of social signals on SEO, with many site operators completely changing their strategy as a result. But what role do social signals play? Are they a significant ranking factor or just another industry buzzword?
It is quite easy to want to dismiss it as a buzzword used to sell services you don’t really need. Several case studies over the past two years have downplayed the impact of social media on SERPs, including a very detailed experiment run by Eric Enge between July 2013 and September 2013. But things change quickly, especially when it comes to search engine results.
Understanding Social Signals
Social signals are generated every time someone likes or shares a web page on any social network, with the total number of fans or followers serving as an amplifier. Even though these social shares and likes are not necessarily true endorsements, they are seen as recommendations with some weight of authority attached. The authority stems from the fact that people are more likely to trust a site, product or service that a friend has recommended over a search result.
This has led to SEO and SEM professionals closely monitoring the influence of social signals on search engine ranking, continuously adjusting their strategy for maximum benefit. A few site operators even abandoned their link-building strategy in favour of social signals. The first indication that social signals were more than just a buzzword came from Bing and Google in response to a series of questions posed by Danny Sullivan. Later, during an interview in July 2012 Google’s Matt Cutts further clarified that while social signals were an important ranking factor, they had not superseded the importance of links, nor would they anytime soon.
Many see the new Hummingbird algorithm as a way for Google to put into place infrastructure that would allow them to better process and understand social signals, something they weren’t able to do effectively before. It is still too soon to confirm this through new case studies, and Hummingbird could also be the first of many changes at Google as they work towards better use of social signals. The integration of Google+ with YouTube could be seen as another indicator of this.
Using Social Signals to Boost Your Ranking
Links remain the most important ranking factor with search engines, but that does not mean you should not be using social signals to add a boost to your position. The boost added by social signals is often temporary, but it can be enough to get valuable early exposure, with links following to stabilize your ranking. A case study published by Jason Acidre in May 2011 illustrated the temporary nature of social signals as a ranking factor perfectly.
An article that Acidre wrote in April 2011 was tweeted by several influential bloggers and SEOs within hours of being published. The article ranked on the first page of Google for several search terms within 12 hours, but this was short lived. Three days later it did not even feature in the top 50, and it took almost a month of natural link-building for the page to again rank within the top results. This shows that you should not rely solely on social signals to influence your search engine ranking.
The first step is to ensure you have a company blog that is updated regularly with high-quality content. This step is obvious to anyone working in SEO and SEM, but the reality is that there are still many businesses with only a static website or, if they have a blog, it isn’t updated regularly. To generate social signals your content must be engaging and informative enough that people want to share it; remember that people do not share sales pitches. Include images to make sharing to sites like Pinterest more appealing.
Create and Maintain Social Profiles
Not surprisingly, some studies have shown that the top two social ranking factors are Google +1s and Facebook shares, with Facebook likes, Pinterest and Twitter ranking below number of backlinks. With this in mind, you should be registered and active on all of these networks, not ignoring LinkedIn - particularly if you are in B2B. Carefully cultivate your following on all networks to include several people that are quite influential within your industry niche. This is especially true for both Google+ and Twitter.
Follow a strategy similar to your blogging - your status updates should include links to some of your own articles, but the emphasis should be on sharing news and links that engage and inform your audience, even if they link to other websites. Don’t simply post a link to the article; each social network appeals to a different audience so include a brief summary of the article that would interest each specific audience.
Make Sharing Simple
People are less likely to share your stories if doing so involves too much effort. Remove obstacles by including sharing options with each article. If your website is running on WordPress consider using the DiggDigg widget, which makes it incredibly simple to share and like any article. Each time you publish an article you should share it across your network, but try posting it at different times to determine when you get the most engagement.
Continue With Your Normal Link-Building Strategy
Regardless of the ranking results from social signals, don’t alter your normal link-building strategy. Continue building links to each article immediately after publishing so that you can maintain a high position on SERPs even after the initial social signal boost has faded.
Following these four steps will allow you to not only boost the social signals for your website and articles, but also get maximum benefit from ranking high early and then maintaining a prominent position on SERPs.
With both Bing and Google confirming that they do consider social signals as a ranking factor, it is safe to see it as more than just a buzzword. While its current significance and impact may be hotly debated, it cannot be ignored, especially following the roll out of Hummingbird. And with social networks continuing to grow rapidly, while adding new services, social signals will play an even greater role in future ranking factors.
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