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Wondering how social media affects SEO?

How Social Media Affects SEO – Is Social Media a Ranking Factor?

First things first: social media is not a direct ranking factor (meaning number of retweets for example). Because Google keeps its secret algorithm so tightly guarded, it’s impossible to know for sure what they do and do not take into consideration when ranking.

What we do know is that as far back as 2015, Google has insisted that they do not use social signals as ranking factors. Google’s Gary Illyes reiterated this in a tweet in 2016. The question asked was “Some controversy over whether Google takes social into account for SEO — perhaps Louis Gray will settle this in our next session! #social16” to which Gary responded, “the short version is, no, we don’t.”

This means that metrics including Facebook likes and Twitter followers, etc., have no effect on search rankings. Understandably, this came as a surprise to many under the assumption that such factors were factored in as indications of brand trustworthiness and quality.

With the release of studies like this one SearchMetrics claiming there was a clear connection between social signals and rankings, marketers were left with mixed signals.

So, Why Aren’t Social Signals Ranked?

Here is what you need to know.

First, Google won’t count the shares or community size as a signal directly because it is way too easy to game the system. They will crawl Facebook pages, Twitter pages, etc, to see the content and links on the page though. Just like any other HTML page online. Now here is what is important:

Links on Twitter are nofollow. So Google will not pass link juice through the pages, but they may use the links for indexing content. Links on Facebook are followed. So if Google sees a link shared on many Facebook pages, that they can crawl, that can help with rankings.

The key is, can Google find them.

Things like likes and shares happen a very quick pace – a pace too quick for even Google to catch all them, making social sites more difficult to crawl. Also, much of this happens behind a login on the social media sites. Google does not have access to behind the scenes data for these properties, as far as we know. If they do, they have not said they use it in rankings. We do know that they have had access to the Twitter firehose in the past. They have integrated it heavy with Google results, even ranking Tweets. But that has since subsided a bit.

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Links and Shares

So what about Twitter or Facebook posts that go viral?

Many SEO’s believe that this kind of content – great content that picks up a lot of links will see rank improvements, as links are direct ranking factors. The more shares a page gets, the more visibility it gains. If a high-profile blogger or author happens to notice it, they may link to it. And the more links a page has, the higher it ranks.

Back in Danny Sullivan’s 2016 article, he asked Bing directly if this activity affected rank, to which Bing replied:

“We take into consideration how often a link has been tweeted or retweeted, as well as the authority of the Twitter users that shared the link.”

The more shares a page gets, the more visibility it gains. If a high-profile blogger or author happens to notice it, they may link to it. In sum, a correlation does exist between social shares and ranking in Google, mainly because the content being shared is great content.

Specifically, social media can have an affect on the following factors (which do affect ranking):

  • Number of backlinks
  • Website traffic
  • Time spent on site
  • Consistent content updates

Social Media Affects SEO – an Indirect Ranking Factor

Despite Google’s claims, it appears that social media does play a role in SEO – albeit indirectly.

A more recent 2016 study from SearchMetrics includes the following:

“The correlation between social signals and ranking position is extremely high … The top-ranked websites in Google’s rankings displays vastly more social signals than all other pages…. This is primarily due to the overlap between brand websites performing strongly in social networks and being allocated top positions by Google.”

The key takeaway here is correlation, not causation.

What this means is that though social rankings do not directly factor into Google’s algorithm, they do still have an impact on rankings.

Yes, pages with more Facebook shares or Google+ likes tend to rank higher, but it’s not because of those likes or shares.

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