SEO is changing. For years, search experts have repeated the same mantra of best practices: title tags, meta descriptions, sitemaps, inbound links, and so on. But as social media’s influence on the web continues to grow, social ranking signals have entered the discussion as the next generation of SEO tactics.
Search engine optimization has always been a dynamic field. Google is known to perform hundreds of tweaks, tests, and updates every year, many of which introduce important changes into how websites are ranked in search.
From the “Florida” update all the way back in 2003, to the game-changing Panda updates we saw throughout 2011, Google is constantly refining its approach to web rankings. Search marketers must not only be aware of these changes, but constantly adjust their tactics in response to Google’s moving target of SEO success.
Of all the search engine tweaks and changes over time, perhaps none is more significant than the gradual, ongoing integration of social media signals.
With social media adoption growing at such an incredible pace, search engines now have access to a massive, rich set of data on page popularity and quality. By integrating social signals, search engines have a direct line to understanding human opinion, and will continue to use this data to determine how pages should rank.
The Social-Search Landscape
It was more than a year ago that Danny Sullivan published official word from both Google and Bing on the integration of social signals. The final word was that both Google and Bing look at data from Twitter and Facebook to influence search results.
Not only do simple social mentions have an SEO impact, but the engines were performing sophisticated analysis on Twitter users, attempting to figure out which Tweets carried more authority.
Many SEOs saw this system as the beginning of “PeopleRank”, a system of measuring the importance of individual people, and adjusting rankings accordingly.
Google officially verified and expanded on this in a webmaster help video. Again, the social/search connection is stated directly, as Google asserts that yes, Google does user Twitter and Facebook links in rankings.
Since Danny’s piece last year, the social-search connection has only grown.
The slide above, from SEOmoz’s upcoming SMX presentation, shows just how far social signals have come. Facebook signals have now been tested as the 2nd most influential ranking signal. This is huge! Anyone still sceptical of social’s influence on search should find this slide persuasive. Clearly, this isn’t just a fad.
The search engines haven’t been shy with their pushes towards social integration. Bing has partnered with Facebook, and continues to expand the impact of Facebook data in its search results.
Google has been even more direct with social integration, with their launch of Google+, and the rapid connection between organic search and Google+ data. Google has been upfront about the ranking impact, stating that “+1s will be one of many signals we use to calculate organic search ranking.”
All together, we can see that it’s no longer a question if social signals impact search. They do, and marketers need to start understanding and optimizing for this connection.
The Next Generation of Trust and Authority
Social signals play a very specific role in search engine rankings. Social signals generally address concepts like trust, quality, authority, and popularity. They usually don’t inform search engines about relevance.
When Google wants to know what a page is about, classic on-page signals still do the job. When Google wants to know how *good* a web page is, social signals are hugely valuable.
Search engines love social signals because, in theory, a social mention is a genuine signal of quality, expressed by a real human
This is the direct page-quality data that search engines have always been looking for. The whole concept of link-based analysis aims to gauge the popularity, quality, and authority of a page by proxy. The idea is that links are a substitute for human opinion, because links be crawled, but humans can’t.
That might have been true ten years ago, but today, more and more of our lives are being posted to social networks, and search engines no longer have to rely on link-based analysis to guess what people like.
The gradual replacement of links with social signals is really what lies at the core of the social-search revolution. Not only does social data measure quality more directly, it can also be analyzed more deeply.
Link spam has been an SEO problem ever since links became important. When Google crawls for links, it has limited data. Google might know what a page links to, when a link was added, and other such metrics, but in many cases, search engines simply don’t have enough link data to make very accurate decisions.
For social signals, search engines can know so much more. Imagine Google using G+ to find page quality signals. Not only does Google know what pages were mentioned on G+, Google also knows a huge amount about who mentioned which pages.
Using the concept of “people rank”, Google can look at how many followers a user has, how long they’ve had a Google account, search activity, Gmail usage, YouTube, Google Calendar, and so on.
This huge depth of data allows Google to make extremely informed decisions about the value of a social mention. While some aspects of link analysis have to be done “blind”, social signals give search engines unprecedented confidence in ranking signal accuracy.
Is SEO Dead?
Over the last few years, as social’s importance continued to grow, the industry saw various articles proclaiming the death of SEO. Virtually every socially-based search tweak would result in someone posting that SEO’s days were numbered.
The key point to realize is that SEO in some form will remain a critical marketing activity for as long as search remains a critical consumer activity.
The chart below shows monthly US search volume over time. Clearly, the trend looks positive. For the foreseeable future, search will remain a fixture of the web, and companies will continue to see heavy returns by investing in organic search.
Although SEO isn’t dead, its definition is changing. When social signals play a critical role in search, an SEOs job becomes more about optimizing for humans, than optimizing for search engines.
For some SEOs, this represents a huge shift in mindset. A few years ago, a website’s rankings may have been mostly determined by links. Since links are largely an artificial measurement, the job of building them often became an exercise in “gaming the system.”
Because of this, SEO tended to veer away from traditional marketing, and towards a strange process of algorithmic reverse-engineering.
However, when search rankings become directly tied to human opinion, SEOs can’t rely on optimization tricks or spammy tactics to drive rankings.
Ultimately, social media will drive the evolution of SEO, from being a game of algorithmic cat-and-mouse, to a truly valuable exercise in optimizing for engagement.
The basics of SEO still apply. Use the right keywords, and make sure search engines can find your pages and read your content. Beyond that, marketers need to stop thinking about how to trick search engines, and start thinking about how to delight users.