It may appear at times that the answer to this question is yes, but just like everything else Google-related, the answer is never quite that simple. Since 2010 this question has been asked by many internet marketing professionals and the debate continues today. Digital marketing firms of all sizes have conducted their own tests and case studies to try and prove exactly how the relationship between social media and search engines functions, especially when it comes to Google. Like many specifics in the SEO world, however, we may never have a 100% accurate answer. As SEO experts, we will just continue to listen to what Google says and keep testing every year to try and stay ahead of the curve so our clients are successful. Social media is becoming an even more integral part of our everyday lives today. Despite the fact that Google’s algorithm is forever evolving, I want to discuss this topic and review some of the basic things we know about how SEO and social media are connected. Hopefully this will help clear the air for many marketers and help them be more effective and strategic in their efforts.
First, let’s talk about what Google actually says.
In a 2010 interview with Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, Google answered yes to the following questions during a Q&A:
- If an article is retweeted or referenced often in Twitter, do you count that as a ranking signal outside of finding any non-nofollowed links that may naturally result from it?
- Do you try to calculate the authority of someone who tweets?
- Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who tweets it?
- Do you track links shared within Facebook, either through personal walls or fan pages?
- Do you try to calculate the authority of someone on Facebook, either via their personal wall or their fan page?
- Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who shared it on Facebook?
So as you can see, Google lead everyone to believe in this interview that social media activity had a direct affect on SEO rankings. But just a few years later, things changed.
The most recent direct answer to this question was recorded by Matt Cutts in January of 2014. In this video he clearly states that social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter pages can be crawled by Google and returned in SERPs (Search Engine Results Page), however explains that “as far as he knows” Google does not consider the number of followers or “likes,” the engagement rate, backlinks created by shared site links, or other social activity to be ranking factors in their algorithm. Cutts then goes on to explain why Google has not included these in its rankings factors.
- Google crawls a web page for a limited amount of time and social media activity is constantly changing. If social media activity affected website authority, there may be accuracy issues.
- Google can’t crawl everything on the internet. Over the years they have been restricted from crawling different social sites at different times. If social media activity was a true ranking factor, they would have to know that they can consistently crawl the social media sites the same way all the time to collect data.
At the end of the day, what Google has decided is that in their quest to evaluate and deliver useful, relevant, credible, top-quality content in their search results, social media activity cannot be part of the ranking factors? Why?
- Because the algorithm may be able to see how many followers or “likes” a business has, but it can’t see the quality of all those followers.
- Because the shares, “likes,” comments, and other engagement are happening at a pace that is too fast to clearly crawl and index.
So, what do the studies show?
As I mentioned, studies have been done by a number of experts regarding this topic and although some people would like to argue they have data that proves content with higher engagement tends to have higher rankings, most experts agree the relationship between social media and Google rankings is not causal. Instead, as Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media points out, “Social media interactions correlate with quality and quality correlates with higher rankings.” This is why it sometimes appears as if website links, shares, larger followings, and more engagement on social media increases Google rankings and authority. The truth is that an effective, successful social media presence often correlates with an effective website and a results-generating content strategy.
If you are not familiar with the difference between causation and correlation, I think Matthew Peters Ph.D., an in house scientists with Moz.com, put it best when he said, “Correlation is not causation. Correlation does not, in general, imply causation. However, two things that are causally related will often be correlated.”
What Google ranking factors are affected by social media?
Even though social media activity may not directly impact SERPs, a clear, well-executed social media strategy does impact a number of very specific ranking factors in the Google algorithm. Social media can potentially increase the:
- number of authoritative backlinks to a website
- website traffic and repeat website traffic
- average time spent on site
- brand recognition and, therefore, possibly the average CTR your site pages get in the search results
- consistent website content updates
The stronger and more successful your social media presence is the more people see your company or organization name and recognize it. This can increase the amount of media mentions and backlinks you are receiving. It can also increase the amount of traffic your site is getting from new and returning visitors. If the website has been designed to truly engage your visitors, then social media can direct people to the site with clear calls to action, which means they come to the site prepared to do something and often stay longer and bounce less. Also, when your website is designed and built to support a strong content marketing and social media engagement strategy you’ll find yourself making more frequent, more targeted updates to the site. All of these things are important best practices and goals to achieve for SEO over time. This is why if people search for, find, and connect with your site more through social media, we can often see an improvement on Google as well. Keep in mind this effect can only be achieved when your website is built with excellent usability, clearly defined calls to action, and easy to follow paths to conversion that generate leads and/or sales.
So this concludes the latest installment of the JB Media Institute blog. I hope this helps clarify how social media can really impact Google rankings and authority. Always remember though, the Google algorithm is forever evolving, so as we head into the future we must always be prepared for shifts and changes.