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Getting a grip on social signals in search

If there’s one thing that has driven me nuts over the last 6 months it’s the non-stop chatter and search and social. If it’s not about social killing SEO, it’s about the so-called blurring lines. It doesn’t end there as we’ve now (supposedly) had confirmation from the main engines that they do infact look at social signals.

Please note, ‘signals‘ are not always ‘ranking factors‘. But we’ll get back to that.

It has gotten so bad that I decided to write this post… so, be ready to disagree and ready for some realities. It’s time to put some of this to rest, once and for all.

Social Signals and SEO

Social kills Search

It’s no secret that SEO’s death is proclaimed at least a few times per month. If it’s an algo change or social or something else, SEO has been dying since it’s inception. While most times it is generally someone looking for attention or a deluge of links that silly search geeks seem to send them time and time again. But social? Really?

Let’s do this once and for all; they are separate disciplines, plain and simple. To make the supposition that social will somehow negate the need for search optimization, is blatantly false and ignorant. As long as we have search engines, those engines send traffic, there will be a need for SEOs to help clients gain inclusion and rank for them.

The Lines are getting blurred

Now, let’s take it further. There is another odd habit over the last year of people stating that the lines are blurred to the point that it is indistinguishable they are synonymous. This is also a misnomer and borne from ignorance. For starters, social isn’t the first nor only market channel that crosses over with SEO… a few others include;

  • Public Relations
  • Paid Advertising
  • Link advertising (yes, once upon a time it existed)
  • Offline media (Radio, TV, mailers etc..)

At the end of the day one should ALWAYS have a well crafted marketing program where all the channels play well together. That being said, it is a bad idea to get to the point where you blur the lines too far. It is paramount that one has clear directives for each channel and the people performing them.

This reminds me of the other recent SEO claim, that somehow CRO (conversion rate optimization) is their domain. YES it is important to understand the related practices. Yes we can keep one eye on them. But to disregard other professionals whole-sale is just bullsh*t. Imagine if the CRO guys started saying SEO was part of their job. We’d not be too happy would we? So please, stop the whole blurring the lines crap.

Social and the SEO misconceptions

Now, the point of this post. How are search engines looking at social? Back in December Danny Sullivan wrote about some responses he received in regards to some questions to the engines about social signals. To me, it seemed there really wasn’t anything all that groundbreaking. To others, this was some kind of watershed moment so those that talked about the blurring lines, were redeemed.

First things first, what might be a signal to a search engine may not always be a ranking factor. For example, when asked about Re-Tweets Google said;

Yes, we do use it as a signal. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article “

Signals V Ranking Factors

Note the use of the term ‘signal’. A ranking factor is not always the same as a signal. Some types of other signals they can glean include;

  • Discovery
  • Trust concepts
  • Temporal (velocity)
  • Context (semantics)
  • Behavioural

Get the idea here? For example a link from a tweet might simply be used as a signal for discovery. In many ways social has given search engineers new avenues for discovering content beyond massive crawls. Does that mean they are using the links in the more understood area of PageRank? No, not at all.

For further distinction I am drawn back to a comment from Google last year where they envisioned the future to be a mix of social graph and PageRank. We also can consider the never-ending need for deeper personalization, so add local/mobile to that list.

Is social media the new cool kid on the block?

Links Are About More Than PageRank

Yes, it may seem a bit alien to many of you, but links are far more than just PageRank vehicles. All too often the concept of social in search comes back to discussions of nofollow not being treated as we understand it.

So let’s look at some other values of links;

  • Anchor text (tho often attributed to Personalized PageRank)
  • Velocity (more on temporal factors)
  • Context (semantic analysis)
  • Discovery (as mentioned earlier)
  • Traffic (wow, what a concept)
  • and of course, social graph

(you can learn more in my buddy Steve’s article on link valuations)

The point here being that we simply can’t become (PageRank) myopic when it comes to how (social) links may be perceived and valued. The search engines are certainly looking at what value can be had from social, but it may not always be about actual ranking factors. In the Search Engine Land piece, when asked about valuations, Google stated;

“We use the data only in limited situations, not for all of general websearch. “

The Evolution of Social Signals

Another point to consider, which came up with a recent (podcast) interview we did with Danny, is that social is evolving at a very fast pace. As search engineers start to try and figure out exactly what value there is in social, the game changes again by the time they implement.

This means we also can’t assume what we perceive as something that would be valuable (today) for a search engine is what’s going to be in the algorithms. There is always a time difference between social web changes and search engines ability to incorporate them into the system.

Just look at Facebook and how ‘shares‘ and ‘likes‘ have evolved over the last year. If they put too much stock in one signal, things can change in short order and negate those efforts.

Back To Reality

And so it says here that YES, social does most certainly play a roll in search. YES, we should most certainly be paying attention to the evolution. But what seems to get lost amongst the hyperbole is not only what that relationship is, but how the engines are actually dealing with it.

Instead of writing articles proclaiming SEOs death at the hands of social, articles about the blurring lines, it’s time to get back to what it is we do and how social (and other marketing channels) may affect that. Any long time readers know my ongoing angst about SEOs not understanding enough about IR and search engineering. This is just one more case to the cause. Start to understand how these things interact and stop writing drivel borne from ignorance.

Last but not least, with such massive changes over the last few years, SEO is most certainly not on the operating table. It is alive and well… ever evolving.

“No matter what one does, whether one’s deeds serve virtue or vice, nothing lacks importance. All actions bear a kind of fruit.” – Buddha



  1. Marjory January 17, 2011

    This is something that interests me a great deal. I feel that search engines would love to use social signals to help rank pages but I agree with you that what exactly that entails is unclear. In particular, I feel strongly that it is not links (or at least not just links).

    One signal that I wonder about (and not just in the social space) is the idea of ‘mentions’ at least for Google’s ranking factor algorithm.

    I think it is uncontroversial that they use them for local search rankings (since not everyone there necessarily has a website) and with all the new emphasis on branding – it seems to me that this could be a signal for regular rankings too. Especially when you consider the increased computing power of Caffeine.

    But maybe I’m completely full of crap. That is highly possible too.

  2. Dev Basu January 17, 2011

    Amen Dave – You know what? Site architecture is not sexy even though it is the basis upon which good SEO works. So instead, everyone wants to talk about doing more social media because now it ‘supports’ SEO goals. T

  3. Marjory January 17, 2011

    Absolutely Dev. I think site architecture is huge but nobody seems to understand that. At my last place of employment, my boss was completely bewildered by the concept – just didn’t understand why we wouldn’t just want to link to every page of the site twice from every page of the site.

  4. SNCadmin January 17, 2011

    @Marjory – most certainly ‘entities’ (yer word for the day) are also something I believe they’d be interested in. We can even look at the purchase of Meta-Web last year as further interest. Interstingly enough, we also talked about that some with Danny in the podcast. As you noted, citations (essentially an entity) are being used so moving that towards the social graph also makes some sense.

    @Dev – hehe… well, I am still a SEO geek at heart and actually do find things like architecture pretty damned sexy!! I just had to finally say something because I was choking on my tongue with all the ‘social’ hype over the last year. I guess peeps just want to get paid to sit around on twitter all day huh? tee hee…

  5. Dev Basu January 17, 2011

    @Dave – I’m glad you did because I find site architecture sexy too! Some of the social media proposals I see make me want punch a hole in a wall.

  6. Marjory January 17, 2011

    Entities – sounds very geeky. Thanks.

  7. Tad Miller January 17, 2011

    I’m definitely a creator of noise around this subject. But I’m in agreement that a signal isn’t necessarily a ranking factor. I find it amazing that no one has been able to quantify specifically how these signals might be impacting rankings. Maybe they have figured it out and just aren’t sharing, but I think the more likely scenario is that the Algorithm is becoming much more situational and personalized and less concrete treating all search queries equally.

    I’ve been trying to crack the code myself to see what the impact on social links on SERPs is. What I’ve found is really inconsistent data so far.

    SEO is evolving with the integration of Social, I don’t see the “blurring of the lines” myself. Chuck Berry evolved into the White Stripes – it’s still Rock and Roll. The same is true with SEO 5 years ago and SEO today.

  8. Marjory January 17, 2011

    Well, it seems to me that if there was any impact of social links on SEO, it would have to depend on who was doing the linking which kind of adds a level of complexity to the problem of sussing any effects out. For example, if David Harry shares a link, it’s probably more important than if I share a link and that might be more important than if xPornstarX shared a link although that might also depend on my social network profile. If it was a porn link, I might not be as authoritative. I tend to interact with SEOs, foodies, and scuba divers. If I decided to share a link about CD rates (or porn), I might be disregarded (assuming I’m not being disregarded anyway which is very likely the case). Of course, those ‘link building videos’ that Garrett French had were a little porno. 🙂

  9. SNCadmin January 18, 2011

    @Tad – well, as with any ‘testing’ we can really never truly know how any factor is being employed and the associated weights therin. There’s what? 10k factors total last I heard? Personalization is definately going to play an important part of the melding of PageRank, social graph and other elements IMO. At the end of the day social is just another marketing channel that plays nicely with search. We simply need to keep our heads on until we have a better idea of just how it’s being used (Google for instance is using for RTS, News and entities from what I know).

    @Marjory – right, personalization will be key IMO as will TrustRank type concepts. That’s where the social graph elements come in. We shall see where it all leads. I just wanted to put my little ol finger in the dyke as the buzz, ingorant and misguided as it is, has been swelling of late. Of course, as with most of my attempts, it will be futile. At least I have these posts to use as “I told ya so” later on down the line.

  10. Jim Ryan January 19, 2011

    Another social media reality has and will always be in play. The business category. Who follows a local HVAC retailer or replacement window contractor on Twitter or Facebook?

  11. Marjory January 19, 2011

    Well, I think that depends. If all you’re going to do is tweet your latest deals on windows, then only zombies will follow you. But if you’re going to really interact with other Twitter users and share interesting content, then probably more will follow. However, whether that will get you any more sales in windows is a whole other issue. I’m guessing not so much.

    Maybe if you hooked up with other home improvement types (linkerati – with blogs that could write about you or let you guest blog) you could get collateral links but I’d have to say overall, that I’m not sure I’d recommend a heavy-duty twitter strategy to a local HVAC or replacement window contractor. I think you’d get more out of sponsoring local events and getting listed in local directories or guides.

    So, would we expect that Google is taking niche into account or will they just blindly give a local window replacement contractor higher rankings because he happens also to be an amusing guy with lots of followers on Twitter?

  12. Uttoran Sen January 21, 2011

    Facebook and twitter has a huge userbase, and basically the real use of links from the search engines point of view is votes. But when it comes to linking, most people do know that it will affect the search engine value if one links but the same is not true for a regular facebook guy. He just shares, out of his own free will, with out thinking of any consequences.

    Hence a facebook share or like is a lot more natural and it comes from the everyday “Joe” and not from some blogger or website owner that knows what linking means…

    some day the search engines will give more value to a social vote, but at this moment, a no follow twitter link is just as useless to a search engine (ranking), as a link from wikipedia. of course both has traffic, and sometimes they bring organic links as well, when someone finds and links to us from there…

  13. Ryan Critchett February 14, 2011

    I think you’re right. So far, as far as the social thing goes, most people in the conversations on the net are talking about sort of a “social takeover,” where massive retweets from authority tweeters and shares on Facebook are huge factors in rank. But, I agree with looking at what we KNOW NOW, and what’s working, and trying to determine how the social signals fit in and how we can calibrate our approach if needed to align with new signals.

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