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.
What is a social signal?
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?
A brief overview of how Google works
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.
What does Matt Cutts say about social signals?
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 and SEO consultants 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!
What is the future of social signals?
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.
What about 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”.
Tiger Woods and sub-aquatic golf shoes
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.
To use, or not to use?
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.