The Impact of Links in Social Media

Keeping up with the latest social media services and sites can make you dizzy. As search engine algorithms get more sophisticated, every link they come across represents a potential signal from which they will make decisions. And these links include social links. Google has admitted that they use signals from social media sites “in limited situations”; Bing has said the same about Facebook links. Then there’s Twitter. But the social link universe is not just about a few major players with high brand recognition.

What Is a Social Link?

Social links can be defined in a number of ways, the most obvious being the links someone tweets to their followers, or the links shared in Facebook’s “What’s on your mind” box, or in Google+’s “Share what’s new” box. But social media and social media linking and link building are about much more than just Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. There are popular social bookmarking sites like Delicious, content discovery services like StumbleUpon, and many other sites that you’ve probably never heard of and never will. There are mass collective voting popularity sites like Digg, and subject-specific communities as topical as PictureSocial for photographers, BakeSpace for bakers, and for rugby players.

Defining social media at all can be a challenge. Isn’t the web itself social already? What about web-based forums and bulletin boards, and even collective series of blog comments about specific subjects? Aren’t these social, too?

Regardless of how you and I define social media, from the perspective of links and search rank, there will be people who view social media as simply another potential way to improve search rank. Indeed, the links that point to your site tell a story about your site, and the search engines use that story to decide just where your site ranks for any given search term.

Social Link Spam

In a 2009 post titled “Social Media Links—Spam 2.0” (available on, I made the following statement. It might be as relevant today as it was then.

Those of us who are in the link building business need to recognize and respect the distinct culture of social media networks. Social media is not there to be exploited for SEO. Don’t ask “What can social media do for my links?” That’s just spam2.0. Instead, ask, “What can I do to contribute to the conversation aside from link drops?” If you have nothing to add but company and/or client links, frankly, you’re wasting your time, and ours. If you worked for the engines, would you really trust anything about social links enough to incorporate it into a ranking adjustment? Maybe in certain cases, and for certain topics, but if you spend some time looking through the social apps, you’ll see they are polluted already by the usual suspects.

It’s true that social media networks and tools do represent linking opportunities and do enable link building. But such networks and tools also appeal to the uglier side of link building. Since it takes only a couple of minutes to create a social account at one of the hundreds of social-related services, these services naturally attract people who are there just to see if they can get a rankings boost from them. How many people would quit these services if the search engines announced that socially shared links would not impact search results?

It’s also worth noting that maybe not every website needs a social media linking strategy. This may make me, a link builder, sound like a heretic, but if your business is selling underground port-a-potties to the mining industry, do you really need to worry about how many Facebook “likes” you have?

Search Engines and Social Links

Some sites will logically and naturally benefit from social media links, while others won’t. The search engines are aware of this, and the unspoken algorithmic reality is they can’t apply a set of social linking and sharing metrics equally across all industries. What is one more Twitter follower worth to Ashton Kutcher? What’s it worth to that mining industry company? Remember too that getting a flood of traffic is meaningless unless you have an objective in mind for what you want to do with that traffic when you get it.

As with most online marketing tactics, the key is in recognizing the social linking potential for your site, and balancing that potential with the practical. Knowing which types of content can benefit from social linking, and then properly pursuing and obtaining these links, is a far more useful skill than opening up 25 separate social bookmark accounts, which anyone can do. Links for the sake of links are pointless.

The reality is that you can submit links to hundreds of social media sites and receive no value from them at all. And just because your site or content might be relevant or on topic, if you have no influence within your network of followers/users/readers/circles/friends, what you send them is not going to spread, or help anyone or any algorithm.

This column was originally published in SES Magazine, Chicago 2011.

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