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Social Signals & Search – Reading the Tea Leaves

Rebecca Murtagh
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reading-tea-leaves-on-social-signals-and-searchSocial media is a focal point for brands. One of the most compelling reasons is because their marketing team, agency and/or consultants have convinced them that being social is required to compete.

Brands are also pursuing social because search engines are paying attention to social signals.

This leads to two important questions: 

  1. Do social signals matter to search? The simple answer is yes.
  2. How important are social signals in search? This is the burning question many are attempting to answer.

Due to the nature of search, there is more speculation than definitive direction on how search engine algorithms are weighing social signals in search. So, as with any other new trend, we're left to dissect the information available to us and interpret it as we do for any other aspect of search. So, let’s take a look at what we have to work with.

Google and Social Signals

Google launched “social search” in 2009. Although Google's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts hasn't written about social signals as part of Google Plus Your World since January 2012, there is evidence that Google is paying close attention to social signals, on and off Google properties (Google+, YouTube, etc.).

My January Search Engine Watch post covered how Google Analytics has integrated social media data, and conversion reports to enable brands to calculate ROI. This integration is robust, especially for those who deploy Activity Stream Integration.

One thing we know is that Google does nothing without a purpose. The collection of this data for users indicates that Google values this data, and presumably has a wealth of data far beyond what they share with users.

Hints from Google

The graphic Google uses (below) to explain to Google Analytics users how social metrics “impact their brand” also provides hints as to what social signals Google is able to identify. One could interpret these as the very social signals Google may be using in calculating search rank.

google-social-hub-infographic

Because Google shares analytics related to Content, Website performance, Conversions and Social with websites owners, we know they want webmasters to use this data to proactively manage the website. The mere representation of social data as a primary category of data speaks volumes.

Because Google outlines how to deploy Social Analytics to generate more detailed reports reflecting social interaction with the website, it is likely they are equally interested in this data.

Do You See What I See?

Chances are very good that you have witnessed visible proof to validate the influence of social signals on Google search engine results. Based on observation from public search results, one could ascertain the weight Google is placing on social signals.

Take for example the results for a Google.com search for [social media ROI]:

google-search-on-social-media-roi-2-2013

These are non-personalized search results. The results would change for each person, depending on the size of one’s social network within the topic being searched.

Social Signals Are Visible

The first of 25 million organic results you see the Search Engine Watch the post I wrote in January with 4,283 total shares between Twitter, LinkedIn, Bufffer, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, Google+, Facebook, and on-post comments.

Use of social signals is captured and can be measured, especially when applying Google’s Social Web Tracking (ga.js) is applied to social sharing buttons:

social-shares-on-search-engine-watch-social-media-roi-post

The second result is a post, also on Search Engine Watch, by Angie Schottmuller on the topic with 3,784 total shares through the same set of social buttons, plus comments. The result in search reveals how many people have Schottmuller in Google+ circles, includes her photo, and related data.

The third result is a book from Amazon.com with 137 Amazon “likes” (which require verified purchase), 40 comments, and a 4.7 review rating, which is a notable nod to the value of reviews in search.

Fourth is a ClickZ post with 95 shares, fifth is a Social Media Today post, and so on.

These totals do not count the social shares, retweets, reposts, comments and discussions on each of the social platforms, but provide a means to measure the social value of each result displayed in search.

Also worthy of notice, from an SEO perspective, is that top results largely feature RSS content, and most of the content has a degree of freshness, displaying posts dated within the past 90 days.

It is safe to say, Google is receiving, and interpreting, social signals – loud and clear.

Bing and Social Signals

Bing is a little more transparent about acknowledging they use social in search. In a recent presentation, Duane Forrester shared the following image in a presentation called “Tomorrow’s SEO”, which cites the relationship of social to content, SEO, link building, and user experience. If one were to interpret the graph by priority as presented, it appears social is not as important as content, but more important than user experience, link building and SEO.

will-seo-still-be-relevant

Signal Interpretation

How Bing interprets social signals related to content is quite different from Google’s as demonstrated by the typical SRP.

When conducting the same [social media roi] search as done on Google.com, entirely different results appear.

bing-social-media-roi-results-2-2013

The first result is a Bing news aggregation feed featuring posts from Huffington Post (posted just a few minutes prior to search and had 4 shares and zero comments), Search Engine Land (one day prior to search with a total of 1,168 shares and comments) and Direct Marketing News (posted less than an hour prior to search with 17 shares and zero comments).

The second result, or first non-news result, is the same Amazon.com book listed in Google.com search results for the same query.

The next result is a Mashable post from 2009 with 4 total shares and zero comments.

In light of these results, the graph Forrester shared (above) makes greater sense. Bing places more value on content than social activity, at least at this moment in time. On Bing there appears to be greater emphasis on content authority over what some might call viral quality – or popularity of content, which Google appears to be attracted to.

Yahoo and Social Signals

Due to the relationship between Yahoo and Bing, we would expect the same results. And, although search results for the same query are similar, the results are not exact.

yahoo-social-media-roi-results-2-2013

Don’t Get Your Signals Crossed

This test can be replicated for any topic, which I encourage you to do according to topics in which you are seeking to achieve visibility in search.

One of the most valuable takeaways is; although “content is king”, it definitely matters who, when, and where the content is posted and shared.

Ideally, you would want to send social signals to each of the search engines. However, because it appears they are approaching the social landscape quite differently you may need to approach SEO for Google and Yahoo/Bing differently. Or, choose prioritize for one search engine and run with it.

What to do With This Interpretive Reading?

Whether you choose to embrace or reject this reading, there are indisputable methods to promoting visibility of content that you’ve heard over and again, yet remain true:

  • Create great content that your audience will find valuable.
  • Use SEO methods to help audiences find the content in search.
  • Use your social networks to promote the content.
  • Track, monitor and adapt your social/search strategy as search engine algorithms change how they value social signals– which is one thing we can count on with 100 percent certainty.

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