Social media doesn't get rankings
15:49 on Mon, 15 Feb 2010 | Social Media | 6 Comments
We have a “Worst Case Scenario Survival” Calendar in the office (we felt it was worth investing in to keep the SEO team safe), and the advice you get for surviving a flood is: “Step 1: Put on a life jacket”...
What? Not much help. Only slightly less helpful than an instruction to “integrate your social media and SEO efforts”.
I don’t think anyone could call me a social media “naysayer” though. I’ll be able to tell my grandkids about the great Digg revolt of 2007, or a the terrible times in 2008 when a duck with wheels turned the web into one big 1987 timewarp trap.
What about when your SEO agency says, “What you need is a highly-targeted, integrated, social media campaign”. It’s a fair enough statement, but it stills makes me cringe.
What interests me though, is one question in particular, “How does social media directly and indirectly affect Google organic rankings right now and in the future?”. There’s a lot of blog posts that deal with this, but a lot of them dance around the subject and don’t give any actionable advice.
“Exactly how ‘big’ is social media?”
That is an actual question I had to field after giving a short introductory workshop in SEO and social media.
If you ask an SEO about social media, they will probably mention Twitter, Digg.com and maybe even Wikipedia while sneering something about “nofollow”. It’s not surprising, as the SEOs are focussing on their incentive, which is to get links. Getting exposure on Digg meant you were providing the fuel for links to the perfect linkerati audience, Twitter gives you access to one of the fastest moving communications platforms on the planet, all you need is the right incentive. Wikipedia? Seems to be getting less edits by a specific type of person now.
If you haven’t seen it, “Is Social Media a Fad” is a great video that gives some interesting statistics on social media usage:
Okay, so I’d probably question a few of those numbers, but for the most part they paint a fairly accurate picture. Let’s go back to our original question, which is actually three separate questions.
How does social media directly affect search rankings right now?
I’m going to come out and say it right away: Links are still king for organic rankings.
For those of you outside the search marketing sphere, saying things like that usually attracts a large horde of SEOs with “content is king” banners and varying sizes of rope.
To stave that crowd off (assuming they’re not already down at the comment box), I’d like to get in that I’m not saying that content is not important, so I’ll add in two caveats to my claim:
1) There’s no point in having rankings without content, as you’re not going to keep people, get repeat visitors or convert those who are on your site to do the action you want them to. I’m looking from a 100% ranking point of view here.
2) Great content is one of the best long-term strategies for link acquisition. However, the rankings are the product of the links you receive from the great content, not directly from the on-page signals of the great content.
Google’s organic ranking algorithm is still powered by links, links and more links. This was painfully proven, when at the end of last year 7 of the 10 first page results for the search term “ugg boots” were spam results. Not only were the sites ranking due to thousands of automated spam links, but the sites themselves weren’t real, they were setup just to steal peoples’ cash.
Link spamming and hacking sites to make them rank are still an unfortunate reality. These sites didn’t have integrated social media campaigns. They get links, filthy ones - but they rank. They'll get removed when someone hand-reviews them, but the point is that the algorithm ranks them above many "geniune" sites.
So, from a technical standpoint, it is still possible to rank sites well in Google without nail-bitingly good content and social media campaigns.
Getting links in an ethical way without creating content and engaging in social media is incredibly time-consuming and probably not the best option, but we can at least learn from the above examples that social metrics aren’t being used to any massive extent within Google’s ranking algorithm currently.
How does social media indirectly affect search rankings right now?
As an SEO, you’ll spend most of your time at glamorous parties and you’ve got to know how to dance.
Click for a larger image
The first thing any SEO will notice about this search result is that 6 out of the 10 results are social media sites with user-generated content. While you could argue the quality, the web is very quickly “filling up” (when will it be full?) with user-generated content, so it’s not surprising that it’s appearing with higher frequency in search results.
Google’s received a lot of flak recently over its “Vince” (the brand one) and “Caffeine” (the, um infrastructure one?) updates and resulting poor search results.
It’s fair to say that the Vince update was a lot to do with connecting known brands with certain keywords, as is sometimes now evident in the “related searches”. Hold that thought for the moment, we’re going to jump onto Twitter, but we’ll be back here in a second.
Both Bing and Google announced deals with Twitter last year, sparking lots of debate about real time search.
Traditionally, search engines haven’t been very good at delivering real-time search results, the best thing you could do was subscribe to major news sites (or later, Twitter) to catch the news before it was indexed in the chronologically sorted and not overly intelligent Google News.
Search engines generally deal with three types of queries: navigational, transactional and informational. It makes sense that some of these types of query are best handled in the “brand” world and some in the “social” world.
The social side of the web is great for up to the second information and it’s also great for finding out people’s opinions, thoughts and feelings. What social media isn’t great at, is providing easy to digest facts. While the web-crowd can normally sniff out the truth in any situation, it’s hard for search engines to take this social content and break it down into useful chunks of information that can benefit their algorithm.
Information supplied by brands is (usually) on the other side of the coin. Apart from a legal obligation to accurately describe their products or services, it tends to be structured in a more usable format for search engines.
Although there are notable exceptions on both sides of the fence, Google does spend a lot of time machine sorting “unstructured” information on the web and putting into boxes. While this isn’t perfect, it’s certainly impressive when you start playing around with products like Google Squared.
As Google sniffs out the intent of more and more searches (mainly via their personalisation data, which I’m not going to touch in this article), they will get better at knowing what proportion of vanilla, blended, social, news results to give the user – always taking them 1 step closer to the information they want to find.
If you’re doing SEO and social results are appearing for your targeted terms and you’re only trying to link build – you’re making your own life difficult.
You still haven’t mentioned good content! (and some crystal ball gazing)
There are 1.5 million URLs shared on Facebook every day and at least 27 URLs shared on Twitter every week.
While a few years ago, many of the social hubs of the web were mainly controlled by cartels of high-powered users and marketers, we’ve seen a definite shift of just about anybody being able to get their share of the limelight.
With such widespread adoption of Facebook and Twitter, in many cases it’s finding the pire to light a match under. Some people specialise in the creation of such content and are very good at it.
Traditionally, from a purist SEO point of view, you’d say “brilliant, great content = links from web pages = good Google rankings”. However, why bother posting to your blog when you can whack a URL into Twitter from your browser, so share the link on Facebook? It’s a lot less effort and the end result to the user is their friends and contacts will see it immediately and can decide themselves whether to pass it on.
This presents Google and other search engines with something of a problem. There is a shift in how people are linking and the resulting link graph on the web. That can put you in a bit of a sticky situation when your algorithm is based around comparisons of how web pages link together.
I attended last year’s SEOmoz Advanced Training Series (I'd recommend this event as one of the better search get togethers) and Rand Fishkin dropped the line, “Have you ever noticed that a URL that gets ReTweeted a lot ranks really well?”. I won't comment where he was precisely alluding to, but some people took this to mean that Google is currently using Tweets directly in its ranking algorithm. However, looking at popular tweets, you can see they tend to get a lot of followed backlinks from the hundreds of sites that regurgitate information from Twitter, which I believe is likely the cause.
I do think on a backlink level, you can break down the difference between “trust” inferred by links and “popularity” but I do believe Google is going to extend into using other metrics outside of the pure web page link graph.
Planning for the future
“SEO is dead” That’s what people have been saying for the last [insert a year of your choice] years. These changes may have an impact on the techniques that SEOs employ, but while a machine is making the rankings there are always going to be factors you can optimise to help your site get discovered in search results. So no, SEO isn’t dead – far from it, it’s just requiring a little more creativity.
One important thing I think a lot of people don’t think about is that Google can’t just suddenly flick a switch and introduce a new metric that hugely impacts their rankings, the risk is way too high that they’d totally screw up their search results and lose searchers in their droves (not to mention put a lot of people out of business). Their updates have to be done in tiny tweaks while the effect is tested and feedback is gathered.
Let’s have a takeaway for 2010:
1) SEO is not dead – far from it
2) Links are what get rankings – so stay focussed
3) You’re going to waste your time with social media unless you’re adding value.
4) Have a think about why you want to be involved in social media.
5) Great content is great at getting links. “Ok” content, isn’t.
6) There’s no strong evidence Google is *directly* using social networking sites (such as Twitter) in their ranking algorithm.
7)That said, there is a strong chance Google will look at using social metrics to give their link popularity algorithm some more padding
8) Social media sites with user generated content can be great places to get exposure and have some easy presence within search results.
Hopefully this rant hasn't come across as too negative for the social media crowd out there. The point I really want to get home is that while there is an (ever-growing) overlap between the two worlds, a lot of people are losing focus of what matters to their SEO campaign, which will always be visibility and rankings.
Conversely, I will be using Twitter to promote this article and hopefully I'll get a link or two.