How Social Engagement Really Ties Into SEO Rankings

If you run a business, there’s no doubt you’ve been told you need to be busy on social media channels.

But, essentially you need to know that your efforts on those platforms are driving traffic to your website and making it quicker for customers to find you online. In short, you need to know you’re getting a return on investment.

The question is this: do social signals actually influence your SEO?

Social & SEO rankings

Social Engagement and SEO: The Answer Is Indirectly

Last year, Matt Cutts announced that social signals won’t directly affect SEO.

Sounds pretty cut and dry, right? Wrong.

The keyword in that sentence is “directly.”

Social media allows you the chance to impact your business’s SEO in an array of indirect ways.

How to Measure That Indirect Impact

Just because you can’t tie the indirect impact of SEO and social signs doesn’t mean it’s time to pack up shop and shut down all your social profiles. While there may not be a very specific formula for directly connecting SEO and social, it definitely doesn’t mean your social effort are futile.

Let’s say you have a ton of followers on Twitter. That doesn’t really guarantee that you’re going to enjoy higher ranks on Google and the other search engines. However, it also doesn’t mean that won’t change tomorrow.

For instance, in 2013 Google said that they did include social signals. A year later in 2014, they said they did not.

According to Justin Kirby, CaveSocial Co-Founder, if a business’s content tends to be drawing people from various social networks to your URL constantly, SERPS are going to view your content as respected and eventually your rankings will increase.

Social Is Much More than SEO Rankings

Increasing your business’s website rankings in search engines really shouldn’t be your only goal when it comes to social signals.

Just look at these other benefits:

  1. Link building
  2. Increased website traffic
  3. Social profile growth
  4. Content visibility

Each of these can, and will, contribute to increased rankings.

Gone are the days of SEO just being about using keywords and link building. That’s exactly why Google’s algorithm continues to evolve.

Now, SEO revolves around honest experiences and trustworthy brands which means your rankings get better as you provide quality content, delivered consistently from a variety of sources.

When you create a marriage between your social and content, you’ll see how your ranking and website traffic will improve.

Let’s not forget about social reputation and brand awareness, either.

As stated in Searchmetrics’ 2016 Rebooting Ranking Factors White Paper:

“The correlation between social signals and ranking position is extremely high, and the number of social signals per landing page has remained constant when compared to with the values from last year’s whitepaper. … The top-ranked websites in Google’s rankings displays vastly more social signals than all other pages…. This is primarily due to the overlap between brand websites performing strongly in social networks and being allocated top positions by Google.”

Essentially, the more ways people are able to find you in search engines, the more you’re able to control your brands’ images. Simply open the first few pages of Google on a search of your product or brand. Be consistent in your efforts and you’ll be able to “own” some topics online with your killer content and, ultimately, your services and products.

So Many Reasons to Be Active on Social Media

While there may not be a clear recipe of what you should be doing on social for your efforts to affect SEO, that doesn’t mean social signals won’t affect SEO whatsoever.

There are plenty of reasons to be active on social, like engaging one-on-one with customers and growing your community. All the growth and social activity to see on your networks will lead to increase website traffic, increased interest in your offerings and more content views.

SEO Is Becoming More Dependent on Engagement

Human marketing, that is, having an online presence and engaging with your community, is good for all sorts of reasons. It’s especially good for your bottom line.

Search engines are hard at work building algorithms that are way more in tune with human thinking since at the end of the day, humans are the ones using the search engines. So the closer they get to being human, the better the results will be.

But don’t just take my word for it. Searchmetrics created a list of correlating factors between social signals and search engine positions.

What you can see here is that 8 out of 10 highest correlations between search engine positions and rankings are tied to social engagement factors. That means that those factors that tie in best with the search engine positioning is related to how people react to content on social media.

Human beings’ reactions on social media don’t happen because of numbers or because you’ve created a perfect site (from a technical viewpoint). It does happen because your content appeals to your audience; it resonates with them; they can relate. They’re human!

We could get into a whole heated debate about a link between causality and correlation. But there’s really one main thing we need to know: content that is likely to entice engagement has a better chance of higher rankings and content that ranks well will help your bottom line.

Matt Cutt’s Viewpoint

So, just how far is Google from using social media signals as factors for ranking? Can the SERPS use follower and engagement metrics from the likes of Facebook and Twitter to evaluate an individual’s authority?

The answers to those questions were certainly buried in the headlines in Matt Cutt’s video.

Supporting what Matt had to say, Google’s John Mueller has categorically stated Google doesn’t use social signals in its search ranking factors.

Okay, so let’s go in depth into Matt Cutt’s comments to try to understand why Google doesn’t do so.

Do Twitter and Facebooks Signals Play a Part in Google’s Ranking Algorithms?

That’s what Matt Cutts answered in the video. Let’s break it down.

1. Twitter and Facebook posts are treated like other web pages

Every individual tweet on Twitter, for example, is a standalone website in Google’s eyes. On Facebook, a re-share, a status update and even a link share are all “pages” on their own to Google.

What we need to understand here is unspoken implication. While a lot of people assume Google tries to index every single page on the World Wide Web, this isn’t true.

While the search engine’s resources are certainly vast, there are limits. What’s more, with the rate at which web pages increase, Google recognizes that not every page is equally valuable, if at all. So the search engine builds its own crawling bots algorithms in order to be selective in what to crawl.

2. Google is limited in how much social web it crawls

Matt has made it clear that Google can’t always crawl all the pages on social sites.

However, while Google can see every tweet posted in real time, for example, doesn’t mean they do actually index every tweet. In a study conducted in June 2015, it was found that Google still indexes less than 4% of all tweets.

3. Social signal correlations that have higher rankings for sites don’t equal causation of those rankings

Matt has made something very clear that caused a bit of a stir: several sites, particularly Moz and SearchMetrics, have published correlation studies depicting social signals like Google+1s and Facebook Likes as arguably one of the highest correlating factors for those sites that rank highly on Google. This has led many people to jump to the conclusion that social signals are the cause of higher rankings.

Then there’s the level-headed Cyrus Shepard from Moz who tried to explain that an associating factor doesn’t necessarily need to be a causal factor. The more likely explanation is that sites that seem to get higher social engagement tend to be sites that attract a lot of other signals that do contribute to their search ranking power.

What’s important to keep in mind is that social media exposure tends to increase the opportunities that sites will indeed link to your content.

4. Be active on social media to build your brand and drive traffic

According to Matt, there are some really valid reasons for being active on social platforms, whether or not social has an impact on rankings.

Marry up good network building and an active social presence and you’ll soon notice a growing brand reputation, the development of authority and trust, better customer service and increased traffic to your sites via the conversations you have and the links you post.

5. It all needs to be a long-term project

This is really important.

During the three year experiment of Google Authorship (which may just be coming back), one of the hot topics in the world of SEO was “author rank” – that is, the idea that Google could use the author’s individual authority for given topics as a factor in search ranking.

But Matt Cutts has made it clear in the video why using individuals’ authority as a ranking is a long-term goal for Google. Establishing a person’s identify and verifying it is hard.

Social Engagement and SEO – It’s All a Bit Like a Fine Wine

Google is incredibly careful in their search results. There is absolutely no incentive for them to rush an unreliable or incomplete signal into their ranking factors. In fact, there are enough disincentives to put them off.

Precisely evaluating and measuring the complex signals that could indicate how authoritative an organization or individual is on social media, particularly with regards to certain topic areas, is massively complex and made even more difficult when major areas where these signals exist are difficult for Google to get to.

This doesn’t mean that Google doesn’t value these signals. Every single indication we have had from Google spokespeople, has been that certain areas of social signals as well as authors as subject authorities continue to be areas of intense interest for the search engine.

In fact, during his 2013 Pubcon keynote speech in Las Vegas, Matt mentioned that social signals shouldn’t be looked at for short term benefits like direct ranking, but rather as long term efforts. In other words, over time the search engines will start watching who consistently gets great social signals over and over again as an indication of who is a trustworthy authority figure.

Just like a reputable wine maker wouldn’t serve a fine wine before its time, the search engines aren’t going to serve ranking factor before its time. While social signals are definitely important, and active use of social media has become essential, you need to be investing in them for the long-term.

You need to know that if you build real value that people will value, overtime, that is going to become valuable to the search engines as well.

Social Media Channels Are Search Engines

We think that social engagement already ties into SEO rankings.

People these days don’t just head over to a search engine to look something up, they use social media channels. Check out this article on why social is the new SEO.

So let’s say you’re active on Twitter. Then it is possible that people will find your business’s new content after searching for market-related tweets with Twitter’s search function. Likewise, brands that make use of stunning visual content can benefit from making that content visible on Instagram and Pinterest by categorizing their pins and using hashtags.

What’s more, if someone wants to look up your company, they’re more likely to open up Facebook and Twitter to do a quick search and check out your presence on each platform.

If Not Now, Definitely Soon

Ultimately, the World Wide Web is all about relationship building, expressing your identity, fostering audiences and sharing ideas. It’s intrinsically social and there is absolutely no reason why SEO best practices would chose to go against the grain – particularly since the rules governing SEO are supposed to make the web a more useful and enjoyable place.

Does social engagement really tie into SEO rankings? We sure think so – but right now, there’s no clear way to measure it.

What’s your take on it? Let us know in the comments!

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