To understand what is popular, relevant, and credible, the search engines are turning to social media. And so too must brands.
If you ask 10 different people in the digital marketing industry whether social media impacts SEO, you'll get 10 different answers. Some state a resounding "YES," and cite SearchMetric's 2013 SEO Ranking Factors report, where seven of the top 10 ranking factors were shown to be social signals. Others claim that the data in that particular report only showed correlation, and not causation, and that social has no direct effect on organic rank. These folks cite Moz's 2013 Search Engine Ranking Factors report in addition to different statements by Matt Cutts on this subject. Still others will vehemently claim that SEO is impacted by social signals, but not in direct and obvious ways.
This middle ground is more likely the true situation at this point. It's unclear what the engines will do in the future, but Matt Cutts says that Google will never factor in direct social actions (i.e., Facebook Likes, retweets, and even +1s). He stated that Google has made attempts to incorporate this information into the algorithm, but it became too difficult to organize and quantify, and therefore, Google does not and will not include it.
However, social media and SEO do overlap, and social can contribute to the overall organic success of websites in several ways. Let's take a look at seven specific examples.
1. Link Potential
Social media activity can help to increase awareness of a brand or website content. This increased familiarity can lead to links. Let's say a brand posts a video of a new product feature. That video gets shared 20 times on Twitter. One of those tweets is seen by a Twitter user that runs a blog (or better yet, a reporter for a major publication). The blogger or reporter decides to write about the new feature and links back to the brand's website and video in the article. That link would not have occurred if the writer had not seen a tweet about the video.
So, while the links in those 20 tweets did not contribute directly to the overall link profile of the website, they did lead to links being placed on a site via the article. These links do contribute to the overall link profile, thus contributing to SEO impact.
Google uses Google+ activity and reviews to personalize search results when the user is signed in. If you are connected to an individual via Google+ and that individual has reviewed a business, +1ed a page, or posted on Google+ about the topic you are searching for, that result is likely to rank higher for you because of the connection.
Take the example below, I searched for "craft beer bars in Denver" and the fourth result is from a person in my Google+ circles. When I toggle from personalized search, this result is not showing.
Not all searchers are signed in all the time, of course, and not all searches occur on Google. But Bing is doing the same with friends' Facebook activity. While difficult to quantify or even view yourself, this personalization of search results does impact ranking.
3. Search Query Volume
Social media can help you get your name out to a wider audience. When that happens, you increase the overall awareness of your brand, which can lead to more people searching for your brand as a result. When Google sees that more people are searching for a brand, they view that brand as more popular and well known, and thus award it higher ranking. This is dependent on the query being searched for, naturally, and often is more of a branded search opportunity by nature.
4. Brand Signals
Some think that simply getting mentioned on a blog or site, without a hyperlink, can also contribute to ranking factors. Google calls this co-citation and considers it a brand signal. Social media's ability to increase awareness of a brand and spur conversation can result in these co-citation mentions.
5. Traffic Volume and Site Engagement
Social media can increase the volume of traffic visiting your website, which is a key factor in search engine ranking. Oftentimes, the items being shared on social media that drive the most traffic are blog posts, videos, event listings, or other interesting content (as opposed to links to your homepage or main category pages). If that content is interesting enough to get users to stick around for a while, reading the entire page or watching a full video before visiting other pages, rather than bouncing right away, you may be rewarded in the organic results. The search engines can measure these metrics - bounce rate, pages per visit, and time on site - and may use it to inform search results and ranking.
Google has indicated that they intend to incorporate identities into search ranking in the future, and are currently working hard to figure out just how they will do it. This means that certain people - based on their authority, relevancy to the topic, and likely audience size - will receive higher ranking for certain queries.
While Cutts states that Google is working on it, Eric Schmidt said last year that it's already happening to some extent for verified profiles:
"Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results."
7. Profile Ranking
A brand's social media profiles rank high for brand terms, oftentimes on the first page and sometimes above the fold for brand queries. Take a look at the results for "Frontier Airlines" below. The fourth and fifth organic results are for two of Frontier's social media profiles, and their Google+ page shows up in the knowledge graph box in the upper right corner of the page. This does not directly send traffic to their website, but it does allow them to better control the SERP real estate and ensure they have full branded coverage.
Knowing that Google has numerous ranking features now, it's not just about those 10 blue links on the first page. For example, the Knowledge Graph Box, news articles, answer box, in-depth articles, videos, and photo carousel are all features that allow for organic search placement. SEO strategies must consider these other aspects as much as possible, and social channels are one of those considerations.
SEO Isn't Just Google
SEO and Google have been synonymous - while most SEO tactics and approaches are search engine agnostic, they often get tied to Google ranking. It's fairly obvious why this is the case - Google is the most popular search engine with 67.3 percent of market share according to comScore. Google also addresses (and condemns) SEO efforts more frequently than other engines. But SEO isn't just for Google, and really isn't just for search engines, either. Every social media network has some type of search functionality. As social media usage has risen, so has the volume of searches on these networks (YouTube is the second largest search engine behind Google and Twitter receives 2.1 billion queries per day).
Consider how SEO principles can be used to impact ranking directly on the various social media channels. They may not be as clear and researched as Google ranking factors, and may not be as easy to impact (Facebook has stated that their News Feed has 100,000 ranking factors. That makes Google SEO a piece of cake by comparison!), but there are still plenty of opportunities for increasing visibility of your brand and content within the social media channels themselves.
As the search engines become more sophisticated at interpreting search intent, delivering relevant results, and fighting organic spam, the SEO tactics of yesterday no longer cut it. To understand what is popular, relevant, and credible, the search engines are turning to social media. And so too must brands. These seven approaches are just a small glimpse into what the future holds for the integration of social media and SEO.
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Angie Pascale is the director of marketing at Indaba Group and cofounder and vice president of search and social at Interstellar, where she leads customer engagement and platform optimization strategies for e-commerce brand partners.
Pascale has provided content for a variety of industry conferences and publications, including the Google Website Optimizer Authorized Consultant Summit, Search Engine Strategies, SMX Social Media Marketing, and eMarketing Association Conference.
Prior to Indaba and Interstellar, she was the director of social and SEO at Location3 Media, a leading digital marketing agency in Denver, Colorado. She graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor's degree in English. Follow her at @angiepascale.
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