When Google’s Matt Cutts announced in 2014 that social signals did not act as a ranking factor for webpages, many in the SEO community were shocked, especially given that the company had said the complete opposite in 2010. For years it seemed that SEOs had been laboring under the pretence that social media success translated directly into SEO lift.
In this article I want to explore why the relationship between social media and SEO is still so contentious, why social media matters to SEO and how to go about joining up these often seemingly disparate approaches.
Social Shares are not like Links
Despite the sense of doubt from SEOs, it’s important to point out that shares, likes, retweets, Google plus ones, or any other social media relayed verb you care to think of, are not comparable to links in the weight they carry in the eyes of the search engines (not currently anyway).
“I don’t think Google is about to throw away it’s multi-billion a quarter link-count scraper to rank tweets above links,” says Shaun Anderson of Hobo Internet Marketing. “Not just now, and not in isolation. I don’t see much real evidence of this in competitive verticals so I need to say traditional links are still relied on HEAVILY, by Google at the very least – and what I would prefer if given a choice.”
The arguments around whether SEO lift from social media is purely correlation and not causation can often miss the wider point though and that’s the tendency for social media to generate buzz, which in turn can generate links that boost SEO. Causation doesn’t have to mean social is a direct ranking signal; there are a multitude of other indirect links, most notably the fact that social media is a powerful driver of website traffic, something that will influence Google’s ranking algorithm.
Paul Morris of Bristol SEO agency Superb Digital, points out that “even though a lot of people debate how much importance and trust search engines actually give to social media links, logically speaking, if content is being shared then it’s probably more relevant than content that isn’t being shared and should therefore be given greater visibility in future searches.”
This is something Neil Patel talks about when he talks about social media being the new SEO. Patel’s point is that platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are search engines themselves and having high visibility here translates directly to having high visibility on Google.
In other words, links and social shares are not the same thing and treating your social media strategy as if it were an extension of your SEO strategy is the wrong approach. Rather the two should exist as a mutually beneficial relationship, reinforcing and strengthening the other.
Future Proofing your SEO
Despite Matt Cutts’ insistence to the contrary in 2014, there is a strong body of evidence that points to social signals as strong ranking signals at some level as part of its overall ranking algorithm. One need only look as far as Google’s recent firehose access to Twitter for a sign of how detailed Google’s knowledge of social media activity is becoming.
“It’s clear that search engines are looking at social signals and these WILL only increase in value,” insists Anderson. “The rewards from building artificial links will narrow – as the rewards from the social activities increase – that’s for sure.”
If he’s right, then SEOs need to be looking at integrating social media strategies far more closely to their SEO. Not only could building a strong and memorable social media brand profile help boost exposure but the SEO payoff could strengthen over time as Google becomes better at interpreting social signals and downplaying artificial link building on the web.
Top Tips for Boosting SEO with Social
Let’s look now at how you can go about leveraging social media love for SEO purposes. Remember, it’s important that social media strategy isn’t just a means to an SEO end and is designed to drive brand recognition and customer engagement on the web in general.
- Grow a genuinely engaged follower base
Social media presence is a very powerful sign or how popular and influential you are in your sector. This doesn’t just mean having a large follower base but a strong one that engages with you and your posts. A strong word of warning here: artificial or purchased followers are not going to help you rank and could even see you punished with lower rankings.
- Use social to promote your blogs
Social media is about content and content promotion as much as it is about interacting with peers. Regular onsite blogging has a significant SEO value and leveraging your social media presence to encourage commentary and shares is an absolute must. A powerful and well developed social presence will translate directly into SEO lift, by attracting more referral traffic and natural links both on social platforms and off.
- Optimize your posts for organic SEO
Content optimization doesn’t and shouldn’t stop at your website. Social media posts can rank in Google and can therefore represent another means of pushing your brand visibility in the SERPs. This means extending your keyword strategy to cover your social media and looking for relevant searches where you can potentially rank. This strategy relies on pre-existing content as a strong anchor, whether that be a video or detailed blog article. Get the content and the optimization spot on and you could open up a secondary search channel for your brand.
- Optimize your posts for local SEO
Engagement at a local level on social media can translate directly into local SEO lift, by sending local ranking signals to the search engines. The more engaged you are with local events and social media communities and companies, the stronger these signals will be. You should therefore look for opportunities on social media to talk about local events you’ve been to or even engage with local companies, by sharing their content and encouraging them to share yours.
Joe Cox is founder and director of Bristol based content marketing agency, Rocketship Content. He has written about digital marketing and SEO for the likes of Smart Insights, Ad Age, Marketo, Social Media Today and Search Engine People. You can connect with Joe and Rocketship on Google Plus, Twitter and Facebook.