I’m often asked by people about the value of displaying Facebook Likes, Twitter Tweets, LinkedIn Shares and other social media signal buttons on their websites and blogs. In order to fully address that, I think that we need first to take a good look at what a social signal really is and how search engines interpret them.
In simple terms, a social signal is a link from somebody’s social media page (such as a Facebook or LinkedIn account) to your web page. When visitors to your website or blog click a Facebook Like button, or Google+ icon, they are creating a link directly from their social media account to your page that they have Liked or G+’d. This lets those who are connected with that person via social media know that they have found some value in whatever it is that you have posted. It’s a vote of confidence in what they have viewed on your web page – and something that they think is perhaps worthy of attention from others that they are connected to. It’s always great to have people appreciate what you have taken the time to create, but what is the significance of that from a Google search perspective?
Google has a complex algorithm that it uses to determine what appears in search results when you type a particular search term into their search engine and utilizes a wide range of factors in order to deliver you a result. One of the more significant factors in that algorithm is the number of links to your webpage(s), and the relative importance of the pages that are linking in. For example, if your company makes rocket engines, having links from the NASA website might provide Google with some comfort that your company makes decent rocket engines. If your website had another link from the Virgin Galactic website, that might add further credibility. On the other hand, a link from your local hamburger store might hold less value to Google. Think of a link (including social signals) as a vote of confidence for the content you have provided.
For the non-geeks reading this (geeks already know exactly who he is) Matt Cutts is head of webspam at Google (update – Matt is now the former head of webspam at Google). There is a reason why people like Matt and the webspam team exist – and that is because as you now know – Google uses links to your web pages as one way of determining the relevance and usefulness of what you have posted. Unfortunately, some webmasters in the past have manipulated Google’s search results by producing and linking less than useful content to key web pages. Matt and his team work overtime to make sure that search engine results remain as untainted as possible, by detecting and punishing attempts at algorithmic manipulation. Any experienced webmaster will be able to tell you just how effective they are at this too!
Anyway, I have embedded a four-minute video that Matt posted to the Google Webmasters page on YouTube a little while back. The video is specifically about the effects of social signals on organic search rankings for web pages, and I found it most interesting. In effect, Matt is saying that Google is not (to his knowledge) placing any particular significance on social media signals. This is (in part) because of the difficulties associated with crawling some social media pages, and also the great speed at which interrelationships between social media users change. Here’s the important part – whilst Matt acknowledges that some pages with plenty of social signals rank well in organic search, he notes that’s correlation, not causation. In effect, he’s saying that the content was probably great to begin with, which is why it has plenty of social love!
My educated guess would be that the value of social signals will increase dramatically over time. Google, as well as other search engines and social platforms, are working very hard to ensure that they know who is responsible for posting what online, and where. As platforms become more integrated, and leading platforms make it more difficult to hide your true identity, anonymity diminishes. With diminishing anonymity comes the sort of transparency that makes attribution easier, and more reliable. Does that make for a better or worse internet? Maybe that’s a good topic for another post sometime. For now, it’s important to understand that this sort of transparency provides opportunities to build real authority, and the future of the internet as a communication tool lays in authority.
The original thrust of this post was to question the value of displaying social media engagement buttons on websites and blogs. My view is that these buttons provide a ton of both short and long-term value to webmasters and bloggers. The Google algorithm gets better over time. Just a few years back search results could readily be manipulated with web spam. Today, that is largely not the case. It’s just a matter of time before the Google algorithm becomes smart enough (if it’s not already) to rank the “authority behind the authority”.
I often use the example with clients of me stumbling across a web page about golf shoes, and Liking it. Google knows (or should know) from my social media pages that I don’t play golf. I like to scuba dive in my leisure time. Unless the page is about sub-aquatic golf shoes, I don’t think that my opinion about them is really that relevant. On the other hand, if Tiger Woods was to stumble across the same page, and he Liked it, that would be an entirely different matter. If Greg Norman saw that Like on Tiger’s Facebook feed (I’m assuming they are friends on Facebook here) then himself visited the page and Liked it, that would be cause for excitement! Two golfing greats Liking a page about a particular type of golf shoes is something that golfers would want to know about.
It’s clear from what Matt Cutts says in his video that Google is super interested in establishing authorship, and thus authority. Social media by its nature is a first-rate way for Google to determine what people value in the real world, how many of them value it, and the authority behind what it is that they value. In the present, social media does exactly the same thing for webmasters and bloggers. Every time a visitors provides their stamp of approval for your content by clicking on a social media icon, they are also telling those they are connected with about the value of your content. My view is that any webmaster or blogger who fails to have social media buttons integrated on their website is missing a most valuable opportunity to get their message out there – and is just plain crazy! Install the buttons. Suck up their value!
I originally published this article under the title “Social Signals & Authority on Google” at i-Business, on 17th September, 2014. The post contains minor edits.
Let me start by saying that I love Facebook. I live in Asia. Most of my family lives in Australia. I have friends and relatives scattered literally all over the globe. Since I started using Facebook I’ve reconnected with long lost cousins, friends that I thought I might never see again, schoolmates and old Army buddies. Every day I enjoy the experience of being able to see my kids, grandkids and extended network of family and friends living their everyday lives. It’s a portal to a world that was all but unimaginable just a decade ago – and I for one like the view.
When you signed up for your Facebook account, you may have noticed the positioning statement on their homepage that says “It’s free and always will be”. Facebook has always proclaimed that it’s free to use Facebook and would remain that way. That may be the case for people who use Facebook as a way to stay in touch with family and friends. It’s certainly no longer the case for commercial users, many of whom have invested large amounts of money to develop a presence on Facebook. Right now, some commercial users like Eat24 are actively closing down their Facebook pages. Personally, I’ve all but ignored my own Facebook fan page for some time. I’ve been telling some of my social media clients to do the same thing.
By rights, Facebook should be the greatest marketing platform ever unleashed. They have the data to understand your every interest. Facebook knows who your friends are, and probably have enough information to understand what drives your friendship and makes it work (or not). Depending upon what you share, they know where you have lived, where you have visited, what restaurants you eat at, your sexual orientation, your religious and political views, and what kinds of computer, tablet and smartphone you own. They may know where you work, what your profession is and roughly how much you earn. Facebook knows a LOT about you. So why isn’t every marketer on the planet falling over themselves to advertise on Facebook?
Firstly, small business owners resent the fact that Facebook is trying to make them pay, in order to display content to their own, hard-won Likers. Many business owners have allocated considerable time and resources to building a Liker base on Facebook, only to have Facebook pull the rug out from under them. Without digging into the whats and hows and whys of it, Facebook now only feeds new posts to around six percent of Likers. This means that if a small business has developed a Liker base of say 10,000 people, anything they post on their Facebook page will only be fed to around 600 of their base. To feed posts to more Likers, Facebook now demands payment to “boost” the post.
Secondly, small business owners hate the fact that Facebook (according to their terms of service) “owns” all of the content that they post on Facebook. Let’s face it if a business goes to the trouble of creating something that it believes is worthy of sharing with its Likers, why would they want Facebook to own it? From a purely legal perspective, business owners probably shouldn’t post anything that they value on Facebook at all!
Finally, (and most importantly) small business owners are waking up to the fact that Facebook is not somewhere that people go to in order to buy things. Reality is that when people hop on a search engine like Google to buy something, they will search for something specific. They’re looking to buy, and any ads that they might see are really not an intrusion. They can even be helpful. People don’t visit Facebook to search for products and services. They visit to catch up with family and friends, post pictures of their cat and play Candy Crush Saga. Ads are an intrusion.
Sure. I really don’t think that small businesses should abandon their Facebook pages. As a tool of personal recommendation for small, local businesses, Facebook can be word of mouth marketing on steroids. I’ve seen friends asking if anyone knows of a good plumber in such and such a place, or asking for information about where to purchase certain items locally. The power of Facebook is undeniable in these circumstances – but it’s not a paid ad – it’s a personal recommendation. Sales leads just don’t get any better than this and Facebook is an awesome medium for producing them.
Probably not. If your business is a local service business, I’d have to question the value of paying for exposure on Facebook, at all. The truth is that people are only going to get a new accountant when their old one dies or retires. They’re only going to try and find a plumber when their toilet is broken. Chances are, they’ll go to Google to search for those services. On the other hand, if you are in business as a health and nutrition consultant, chances are that you can develop an engaged audience which is keen for day-to-day health tips – and developing a community of Likers on Facebook, and paying to boost your posts may be a viable option for you.
Think of things this way; how would you react to the kind of ad you are thinking of placing on Facebook if it was to pop up on your feed? How much time would you be prepared to spend reading the sort of posts that you could create for your own Facebook fan page? How often would you be interested in seeing a post appear on your feed about the kind of business that you run if you were an average Facebook user? Ask yourself these questions. Ask your friends, family and colleagues too. Chances are they go onto Facebook to catch up with family and friends, and to be entertained. It’s just possible that they don’t want to see your products and services on there. It’s also pretty clear that Facebook just doesn’t love you (or me) like they used to.
For those business owners who are unfamiliar with Facebook remarketing, you need to find out about it. This article from Facebook News is a few years old. It’s probably more worthy of a read now than what it was when Facebook first published it. Marketers can now use Facebook as a way to re-engage with people who have already visited their website, by installing a “pixel”. Think of the pixel like a tracking device. It will follow your website visitors to their Facebook page and serve your ads to them – remarketing to people who have already demonstrated some level of interest in what you have to sell.
Remarketing works on Facebook because it is not intrusive. This is not about businesses posting something share-worthy, and hoping that it goes viral. This is not about trying to get the attention of somebody with no interest in you, or your products. It’s about placing your message in front of somebody who has already put their hand up as a potential buyer, by visiting your website. You are reengaging with somebody who has already demonstrated an interest – you are not intruding – they have already thought about you before. The potential power of this kind of advertising cannot be overlooked.
Many internet platforms start out free. Google is a great example. When they began, everything was free. Google introduced AdWords in 2003, and it has since gone on to become the most successful and profitable advertising platform in history. Facebook has long struggled to monetize its own operations in a way that meets with shareholder expectations. My guess is that remarketing may just be the thing that finally takes the platform to the moon. My advice as a marketer – Facebook remarketing just cannot be ignored. Jump on it!
I only began using social media actively in December, 2012. Prior to that, I’d been a knuckle dragger and resisted the urge to use Facebook as anything more than a business tool for building social signals. Something I did purely for SEO purposes. I saw it strictly as a necessary evil for somebody like me, who depended upon organic search engine rankings on Google.
These days, I’m a prolific user of social media. I live in Asia. My family lives mostly in Australia. I have friends, associates and clients dotted around the globe. For the most part, I keep up with everyone via Facebook. That’s just where people seem to gather. In some respects, it seems to serve the modern-day equivalent of church socials and town hall meetings. It’s a place where people with ties and connections, shared beliefs and common interests gather. Check it out, and Facebook (or LinkedIn, or some other platform) will have a group that meets your interests and needs. Most often, you’ll be invited by friends who know that you have the interest to join these groups – much as might happen in the physical world. That’s great, but I have observed something interesting going on. Something that I’m not too sure I like.
When I started using Facebook, I became friends with people that I had known throughout (or at some point during) my life. I quickly found my feed filled with pictures of their kids, pets, homes, workplaces, favourite restaurants, and a million other scenes from their everyday lives. I saw posts from news stories that they had commented on, stating their views. I saw posts appearing about those things which were passions within their lives. I saw personal triumph and awful tragedy. I saw humour. I saw great insights, I saw outright stupidity. Truthfully, I didn’t like everything that I saw.
Facebook, Google and increasingly, every online platform try hard to cater to your every interest and need. In doing so, they also try (often successfully) to filter out those things which might displease you. Looking at my own experience, Facebook and I have systematically filtered out the things that I don’t like seeing on my feed. Annoying relative posts too many pictures of their fat, ugly cat – no problem – that’s what the unfollow (not to be confused with unfriend) button is for. Abracadabra – no more fat, ugly cat pics. Some church group feeds you too many annoying pictures of Jesus – no problem – that’s what the report post button is for. Do it enough times and like magic, Jesus just disappears from your feed for eternity (pardon the pun). So, where’s the downside you ask?
Do enough unfollowing and post reporting, and you’ll soon have a clean, trouble-free feed. The question is, how diverse will that feed be? Will it just become a place where everyone shares your views and beliefs? Has it become a place which blinkers your view of the world? I think that for many (me included), that’s exactly what it does. Do anti-vaxxer views annoy me? You better believe it! Should I really be completely obscuring those views from my world? Damn, that makes me about as ignorant as religious cult nutters, locked in a walled compound! As nutty as I might consider anti-vaxxers to be, I need to know that they’re out there. Right now, I’m hating the protective little bubble that I’ve created.
Right now, just as soon as I’ve finished posting this blog, I’m going to re-follow the hundreds of people I’ve unfollowed on Facebook. I’ll undoubtedly see the demented ranting’s of Jesus freaks, some horrid snot-nosed children, plenty of fat ugly cats, and the frenzied comments of some virtual imbeciles. I’m going to embrace every bit of it. Facebook, I no longer want you to edit what I see. Just feed it to me baby – and I’ll decide when to just scroll by.
UPDATE: Turns out that I didn’t love snot-nosed kids, fat cats or Jesus nearly as much as I’d hoped I might. The Unfollow and Snooze buttons are my friends!
Just a few days ago the image below popped up on my Facebook feed. It was posted by a good friend of mine with the following comment; This was my dealings today with the owner of [DELETED] meat shop in [DELETED].
I clicked on the feed and was amazed at the 50 plus comments which followed – many of which were from people that I know or know of. Here are just some of the comments;
>>> That dude is a complete tool
>>> [DELETED] [DELETED] [DELETED] [DELETED] and other restaurant owners please check
>>> I stop going there mostly because like [DELETED] he is a tool to say it nicely
>>> [DELETED] he is done as a serious meat seller. Just wait until the Manila boys join this. They know how much I love my food
>>> Thanks. [DELETED]. I will save this post in case he comes back here again trying to sell me his meat.
>>> I just can’t believe his response The guy is a fool. Might be a good butcher but terrible at customer relations.
>>> The response “good luck to you” tell me he is a dip stick
In addition to those comments, dozens of restaurant and bar owners in his local area were tagged.
The guy who owns this meat shop probably thought he was just blowing somebody off. In the case of my friend, he was a customer who lived four hours drive away from where the meat shop is located and is probably not a frequent customer at the shop. What he probably didn’t realize is that my friend is very plugged into the expatriate community immediately surrounding where his meat shop is located, and which he relies upon to make a living.
That expat community is small, but the combined reach of my friend, plus all of his contacts is a lot for such a small community. By now, that image has been broadcast all over the world. I’ll personally syndicate this post out to my 12,000 or so social media followers too. Fortunately for the owner, I’ve blacked out his identity and location. Not everyone did that!
I’ve described social media many times before as word of mouth advertising on steroids. Unfortunately for business owners live the guy in the meat shop, social media is a two-edged sword. When you treat customers badly, social media can become a business destroyer on steroids too. Just think of that next time you’re tempted to send that frustrated text or email.