Wondering how social media affects SEO?
Well, yes. But how it helps is complicated. In this post, we cover why.
For years, Google has insisted that social signals don’t affect rankings and are not included in their algorithm.
Yet marketers continue to see a correlation between social pages and higher search engine rankings.
How Social Media Affects SEO – Is Social Media a Ranking Factor?
First things first: no, social media is not a direct ranking factor (meaning number of retweets for example).
Because Google keeps its secret algorithm so tightly guarded, it’s impossible to know for sure what they do and do not take into consideration when ranking.
What we do know is that as far back as 2015, Google has insisted that they do not use social signals as ranking factors.
Google’s Gary Illyes reiterated this in a tweet in 2016. The question asked was “Some controversy over whether Google takes social into account for SEO — perhaps Louis Gray will settle this in our next session! #social16” to which Gary responded, “the short version is, no, we don’t.”
This means that metrics including Facebook likes and Twitter followers, etc., have no effect on search rankings.
Understandably, this came as a surprise to many under the assumption that such factors were factored in as indications of brand trustworthiness and quality.
With the release of studies like this one SearchMetrics claiming there was a clear connection between social signals and rankings, marketers were left with mixed signals.
The truth is that it’s a bit of a murky area, which I’ll try to navigate with you below.
Social Media SEO History – How Social Media Affects SEO
Back in 2010, Google’s Matt Cutts released a video stating that social media signals were in fact a ranking factor.
The question was:
“Hello Matt, a recent article of Danny Sullivan suggests that Google uses Twitter and Facebook links as a ranking signal. Can you confirm this? Can you elaborate a little bit more on this?”
“Yes, I can confirm it. We do use Twitter and Facebook links in ranking as we always have in our web search rankings.”
The article in reference elaborated by explaining that search engines take into consideration things like quality followers and shares to help establish authority and trustworthiness (and therefore earn a higher rank) with Google and Bing.
Fast forward three years, and Cutts releases another video – only this time, he changed his tune a bit on how social media affects SEO.
Asked again whether Facebook and Twitter were treated as ranking factors, he replied:
“Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index, and so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But as far as doing special, specific work to say ‘oh, 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 rankings algorithms.”
So the social media links effect SEO, but the other metrics do not.
So, Why Aren’t Social Signals Ranked?
Here is what you need to know.
First, Google won’t count the shares or community size as a signal directly because it is way too easy to game the system.
They will crawl Facebook pages, Twitter pages, etc, to see the content and links on the page though. Just like any other HTML page online.
Now here is what is important.
Links on Twitter are nofollow. So Google will not pass link juice through the pages, but they may use the links for indexing content.
Links on Facebook are followed. So if Google sees a link shared on many Facebook pages, that they can crawl, that can help with rankings.
The key is, can Google find them.
Things like likes and shares happen a very quick pace – a pace too quick for even Google to catch all them, making social sites more difficult to crawl.
Also, much of this happens behind a login on the social media sites. Google does not have access to behind the scenes data for these properties, as far as we know. If they do, they have not said they use it in rankings.
Social Media Affects SEO – an Indirect Ranking Factor
Despite Google’s claims, it appears that social media does play a role in SEO – albeit indirectly.
A more recent 2016 study from SearchMetrics includes the following:
“The correlation between social signals and ranking position is extremely high … 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.”
The key takeaway here is correlation, not causation.
What this means is that though social rankings do not directly factor into Google’s algorithm, they do still have an impact on rankings.
Yes, pages with more Facebook shares or Google+ likes tend to rank higher, but it’s not because of those likes or shares.
Let’s take a deeper look.
Links and Shares
So what about Twitter or Facebook posts that go viral?
Many SEO’s believe that this kind of content – great content that picks up a lot of links will see rank improvements, as links are direct ranking factors.
The more shares a page gets, the more visibility it gains. If a high-profile blogger or author happens to notice it, they may link to it. And the more links a page has, the higher it ranks.
Back in Danny Sullivan’s 2010 article, he asked Bing directly if this activity affected rank, to which Bing replied:
“We take into consideration how often a link has been tweeted or retweeted, as well as the authority of the Twitter users that shared the link.”
The more shares a page gets, the more visibility it gains. If a high-profile blogger or author happens to notice it, they may link to it.
In sum, a correlation does exist between social shares and ranking in Google, mainly because the content being shared is great content.
Specifically, social media can have an affect on the following factors (which do affect ranking):
- Number of backlinks
- Website traffic
- Time spent on site
- Consistent content updates
How Brands Can Leverage Social Media SEO
So how can brands use this information?
By creating quality social content, optimizing it and sharing it with as many social influencers as possible to gain more quality views and shares.
“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.”
To keep it simple: Quality content plus quality contacts creates a higher potential for optimization.
Wrapping Up How Social Media Affects SEO
Social media SEO is complicated, and doesn’t work in the way many are accustomed to.
But it does work.
Remember, social media is not a direct SEO ranking factor.
But Google and Bing do see the links on those pages, when they can crawl them. You can see this in the Google cache.
So when it comes to social media, focus on producing great content and making solid connections.
The SEO benefits will follow.