There has been much speculation and misinformation in recent years about whether social signals from Facebook and Twitter factor into Google search algorithm, and if so, how much. While some SEO professionals focus on social media for the rankings potential, others strictly look at social for the traffic, awareness, and other indirect benefits.
Matt Cutts, the head of Google's webspam team, tackled the subject in his latest webmaster help video, which asks whether Facebook and Twitter signals are part of the ranking algorithm, and how much they matter.
With all the speculation, this is definitely an interesting topic for Cutts to address. Here's what Cutts had to say:
Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we're able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But as far as doing special specific work to sort of say “you have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook”, to the best of my knowledge we don't currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.
Cutts statement seems quite definitivie that no, those signals aren't taken into account. Does this mean there is some tiny bit of influence that could possibly be taking place? Is it something that could be changing later this year? Considering Cutts always chooses his words very carefully in these videos, it's an interesting (and perhaps telling) thing to say.
This is also a change from what Cutts said in 2010, where Cutts confirmed that Google was using social signals. However, Google has since launched Google+, and ended their firehose agreement with Twitter for their tweet data.
We have to crawl the web in order to find pages on those two web properties and we've had at least one experience where we were blocked from crawling for about a month and a half. And so the idea of doing a lot of special engineering work to try to extract some data from web pages when we might get blocked from being able to crawl those web pages in the future, is something where the engineers would to be a little bit leery about doing that.
Cutts also noted a big problem with crawling social profiles: they tend to change frequently, and Google only samples the web at specific points in time.
"So if we're fetching a particular webpage we know what it said at that one point in time but something on that page could change," Cutts said.
He also brings up the issue of perhaps where someone has blocked follower for specific reason, such as an abusive relationship.
Someone could change the relationship status or someone could block a follower and so it would be a little unfortunate if we try to extract some data from the pages that we crawl and we later on found out that for example a wife had blocked an abusive husband or something like that and just because we happened to crawl at that exact moment when those two profiles were linked, we started to return pages that we had crawled. So because we're sampling an imperfect web, we have to worry a lot about identity when identity is already hard.
Unless we were able to get some way to solve that impasse where we have better information, that's another reason why the engineers would be a little wary of where he or little bit leery of trying to extract data when that data might change and we wouldn't know it because we were only crawling the web.
Should you stop using Facebook or Twitter? Of course not. Cutts pointed out that there is a lot of value in both social networks.
So I'm not saying not to use Twitter or Facebook, I love to tweet, there's a ton of people who get a ton of value from both Facebook and Twitter. I think both of those services represent a fantastic avenue, it's a way to drive visitors and traffic to your site, it's a way to let people know about news related to you or your company or website, so I think they're great ways to build up your personal brand. But don't necessarily assume that just because there is a signal on Facebook or Twitter that Google is able to access that. A lot of pages might be blocked or there might be nofollow on links or something along those lines.
He also warned about people making the jump to conclusions about lots of Facebook likes automatically meaning that the page will rank well. In reality, Cutts says that if a page has lots of likes, it probably is pretty awesome, and that is the reason why it ranks. And in a study that Eric Enge did last month, he found the same thing, that Facebook likes and shares don't impact search rankings.
There was an SEO that said "OK, we see a lot of links on Facebook and those are the pages that rank well," but that's correlation, that's not causation. Instead it's probably that there's something really awesome and because there is something awesome then it gets a lot of likes on Facebook and a lot of people decide the link to it. That's the sort of thing where the better content you make, the more people are to like it not only in Google but in Twitter and Facebook as well.
Looking forward about 10 years, Cutts said how Google treats social signals might change.
...I think over 10 years, we're more likely to understand identity and to understand the social connections between people, but at least for the time being, we have to deal with the web as it is and what we are allowed to crawl and what we can easily extract from that and count on being able to access that in the future.
So as of now, Google doesn't seem to be using Facebook and Twitter social signals when it comes to ranking. However, there are obviously still plenty of benefits and marketers shouldn't cease those benefits simply because there doesn't seem to be direct relation between those two social media platforms and Google ranking.