Social signals have become an important part of the digital marketing landscape. Every inbound marketer has a social media marketing strategy and every SEO consultant is working on ways to increase their client’s social signals to improve rankings.
Each week a new study comes out showing the impact of social signals on a websites ranking (almost always positive and dramatic) and we all now seem to accept this as the status quo from Google.
But what does it actually mean and are the direct signals causing the impact or is it the indirect, or both? While there isn't definitive proof on which part of the social signal is actually affecting a websites ranking, more and more SEO consultants are beginning to theorize that it may actually come back to long-time, good old friend of ours: Backlinks.
What are social signals?
Social signals are things like Facebook likes, Twitter tweets, Pinterest pins and LinkedIn posts, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally hundreds of social sharing sites where you can post a link or share a story, bookmark a page or comment on someone else’s sharing.
Some of the other popular sites include Diigo, Stumbleupon, Delicious, DeviantArt, and of course, Google Plus. Using these sites to share your (and others) content; to network and connect with other people, sends out signals via the links, @mentions, likes, and pins. All of these actions then have a digital footprint that is trackable and has an apparent impact on the websites, keywords, and profiles that are most active. But why?
Direct social signals for SEO benefit?
Direct social signals are the actions we take on the social sharing networks. Liking or sharing a page, tweeting or retweeting or Plus 1'ing a website. These are a direct signal, or positive marker for the website or link or person being shared. In a well-known rankings correlation study by Search Metrics, there appears to be an obvious correlation between social signals and sites that rank better:
In the last three years, study after study has shown the impact of social signals on rankings. Many of these put Facebook shares at the top of the power list – in terms of ability to move the ranking needle. These direct social signals are undeniably important in rankings, but are they directly important or indirectly important?
Indirect social signals for SEO benefit and increased rankings
The three most noticeably indirect effects of social signals are increased backlinks, lower bounce rate on your website, and increased brand recognition and positive association (usually). By sharing content socially, people tend to attract linking by others to the source of the content (your website). Thus, social signals are directly related to the natural building of links to a page or site.
A lower bounce rate for a website is generally associated with higher rankings. Social signals tend to increase loyalty and rand awareness and drive targeted traffic looking to see or learn about the topic they saw being shared. Because of this focus from the visitor and increased awareness of your brand, usually there is a longer time spent on your site with more pages viewed.
Increased brand recognition is simple in understanding it's relation to social signals. More visibility and positive association on social networks tends to imprint on the minds of users. This can translate into loyalty, positive reviews, and increased traffic and social sharing – simply because of brand trust.
But are these secondary impacts only related to increased rankings and SEO benefit or are they directly responsible? Moz did a correlation study on the relation of social signals to backlinks a couple of years ago, that while out of date, does give us a glimpse:
We definitely see positive correlation here, although there did seem to be less of an impact related to Twitter. What is important to remember is that none of this data is causal. What is also important is that this study was done to look at whether there was a correlation between linking activity and how well a page does that on its own, and social signals. In other words, as it mentions at the top of graph, are social signals a good indicator of a pages linking activity.
Social Signals in 2013 – the new and improved, natural link building.
What we are seeing today, in a post Penguin 2.0 world, is the ability of social media to build links. Those that said social signals were taking over in importance compared to links seem to have been a bit overzealous. Links are alive and well, but how many, where they come from, and how they were created is more important than ever.
On a recent whiteboard Friday from Moz, Rand talked about multiple ways to naturally attract links via social media. He also mentions in the video, the suspicion of many SEOs, that it's not the social signals themselves that are causing the most impact on rankings and SEO, but the links that are built (indirect impact) as a result of the social sharing. Whether these links come in the same day the content is shared socially or three months down the line, sharing social can attract an immense amount of natural links.
What are you waiting for? Get social!
Regardless of whether the impact from social sharing on rankings is coming from the initial action of sharing or a secondary effect link link creation, social signals are of undeniable importance to rankings and online presence. Sharing your new website or blog post on Google + will get it indexed in the search engines faster. With no followers in a StumbleUpon account, you can drive 30 people in a day to almost any link you want. The medium is here and in many forms for us to use. Now it's time to get busy and use it.