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Social media signals increase search engine exposure and rankingsIn the cross hairs of much controversy and debate, and especially in the wake after Google’s notable 2013 updates (Penguin, Panda, and Hummingbird), many people are still wondering what, if any, impact social media signals have on search engine rankings and exposure. While there are two sides to the argument, I think it’s better if we first examine some of the details surrounding social signals and their impact on SEO.

What Is A Social Signal?

This is a bit of a harder question to answer than you might imagine. Most people familiar with the term likely consider social signals to be activity on a social media site that can have an impact on search engine rank or exposure (search engine rank refers to where your site shows up in relation to a specific keyword or key term, while search engine exposure takes that concept to include organic listings, social media organic listings, video listings and local listings). However, this concept is tenuous, and is in the midst of being redefined (I imagine more iterations of the parameters will come in the relatively short term, as Google works to fully realize the potential of social activity).

Do Social Signals Affect Search Engine Performance/Rankings?

In a recent video, Matt Cutts tries to answer the question about social signals and their relation to SEO. In short, Cutts says that social media pages are crawled and indexed just like other website pages, and they will be displayed if the posts are valuable and relevant to specific queries, just like any other page. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

That sounds reasonable, I suppose. Specifically, Cutts notes that in the past, Google has made time and monetary investment in its engineering team to crawl data from social platforms, only to have been denied access to the data. Because of this, it doesn’t make sense for Google to invest more effort for more thorough indexing when the possibility exists that they will be unable to access it.

Further, social media pages and posts are more apt to change. For example, somebody could change their name (marriage or divorce), block a friend, change publishing visibility, etc. which would make it nearly impossible to stay current with each of the posts and their associations with personal identity.

Again, this makes sense. However, Cutts here focuses on Twitter and Facebook – platforms to whose data Google doesn’t have direct access. The question doesn’t specifically ask about Google+, nor does Cutts mention the platform in his response. Given this, and the fact that Google has direct access to Google Plus users’ data, it doesn’t seem a far fetch to assume that G+ data is pulled and displayed in a different manner than other platforms.

There is the now well-recognized correlation between G+ plus ones and search performance. Currently, correlation does not equal causation, which Cutts also notes in the video. Simply, the results show that if you provide quality content that people are likely to share, Google will consider this content worthy of being displayed.

So, Are Social Media Signals Truly Valuable?

Short answer is yes. And the long answer is yeeeeessssssss. Let’s look at a few examples of why social signals impact search engine rankings.

Quicksprout’s Neil Patel recently had a write-up about this topic. In the post, Patel displays a gifographic that illustrates how social activity (and by extension, social signals) positively affect search engine performance.

A few months ago, the SEMRush blog posted five case studies that show a hard-to-argue correlation between social signals and search engine rankings.

Search Engine Land condensed a recent Google Hangout On Air (from the notable Danny Sullivan) into a brief video recap explaining that in the post-Hummingbird landscape, Google has an incredible opportunity to process social signals. This post and video also provide a more articulate explanation of how Google+ activity might likely (in the near future) contribute to search engine performance.

Eric Enge, SEO pioneer, has written about the effects of social signals and SEO performance. A few months back, he wrote this piece for Search Engine Journal describing how Google+ works to your SEO performance benefit.

In December, Ian Lurie gave a Whiteboard Friday presentation over at Moz describing something he’s long predicted – the Idea Graph. Essentially, the Idea Graph examines (and takes action on) the seemingly disparate relationships between entities in search queries. Examples of this include co-citation and co-occurrence, which Rand Fishkin described clearly in another Whiteboard Friday (by the way – he called this back in November 2012).

So, How Can I Harness The Power Of Social Signals?

Realistically, positive SEO performance using Social Media relies heavily on fundamental best practices of social media. Namely, one needs to be consistent, provide relevant and quality content, and exercise thoughtful linking options.  There really are no short cuts when it comes to utilizing different mediums for search performance – but instead not being swayed by new, catchy trends – as these are rife with possibility for negative results in the next algo change.

However, there are some good tips and tricks from industry leaders to help you be more effective in dominating search fields using social media signals and activity. Here’s a brief list:

Conclusion

Industry thought leaders and well-respected SEO and Social Media consultants agree that social media signals are crucial components of an effective SEO strategy. The news of social signals not currently being directly attributed to search engine rankings and performance is something to consider, but not obsess over. Using social media to positively affect your SEO strategy comes down to the essentials of influential marketing (despite the medium): create valuable, relevant content, use social media best practices (read: common sense), and be consistent in your endeavors.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject? Please share in the comments section!