Social Media and its Influence on Ranking

By: Daniel Imbellino
Feb 25, 2014

For years internet professionals have watched and wondered as to how social media like, share, tweet, social media graphicis viewed in terms of ranking by search engines like Google and Bing. Google’s Matt Cutts has clearly stated that social signals are indeed factored into their ranking algorithms, but that social alone will not make you rank. Likewise, Google has also made it clear that some metrics, such as Facebook likes aren’t factored into their ranking equation at all. So the question remains, if social media does have an influence on ranking, which factors and metrics count, and which don’t? After sifting through tons of social data from this very website, along with a number of social properties, I do in fact now have sufficient data to point out the metrics that count, as well as the ones that don’t.

The Social Media Metric Puzzle:

One of the discoveries I made in terms of the effects of social media on ranking is that the system truly cannot be gamed! Why? Because, you can’t fake quality content, real engagement, or true influence on social media, and even if you tried, the results would be disastrous. The metrics I just mentioned are actually a few of the ones that will truly make you rank! While SEO’s were busy counting likes for the last 5 years, some of us looked elsewhere for social ranking clues.

Measuring social Influence and engagement metrics:

These two metrics seem to trump the rest, aside from the quality of your content that is. How do you measure social influence and quality of engagement, and how do they stack up in terms of ranking? Think about it, how do search engines determine the popularity and credibility of content on the web, including the social world? What do people do when they see content they like? They share it, like it, +1 it, place positive comments upon it, and often what is popular is what is searched for on the web. It’s these metrics that can give search engines the clues they need to make sense of the quality and worth of content they crawl across the web. When it comes to social media however, engagement in the form of comments appears to have the strongest affect on ranking, as well as whom those comments are coming from!

Yes, who so happens to actually engage with your social media posts matters, and so does relevance. For instance, let’s say you write a post about social media, and somebody who’s influential in social media just so happens to +1, comment, and share your post, how would this affect ranking? Google can easily tie the pieces together here and know that your content is relevant to an influencers work, effectively giving you a much higher rank in SERPS as a result. Just as with back links, relevance between people is just as important as relevance between content when it comes to social media and ranking.

It’s not just influential people that matter, but overall the amount of positive engagement a piece of content garners that matters as well. Positive social engagement on a large scale can point out the popularity of content, people, etc. If people are positively engaging with your content on a large scale, this gives direct clues to search engines as to the value of that content, making it more likely to appear and rank in search results. Simply put, quality engagement will make you rank!

Klout has long been in the business of trying to measure social influence, and incase no one has noticed, comments appear prominently on their list of metrics they evaluate when determining your scores, and not without cause.

SEO’s should assume that Google and other search giants do in fact look at comments as a way of evaluating the quality and worth of content they come across. In many cases my content actually ranked immediately after receiving engagement from a post on Google+, and many times that content even scored for the keywords I used in the post itself. I’ve seen this phenomenon take place repeatedly over the course of the last year. In one instance we made a post about Pacman from our gaming page “Gamers Bay” on Google+, in which the post received a tremendous amount of social engagement. Low and Behold, the next day our Pacman page ranked on the first page of Google at spot #3.

Content Remains King:

While having influencers support your social cause is great, and having thousands of people engage with your content is a big plus, you’ll never get there if you have lousy content. It’s not just influential people you’re trying to convince here, but the rest of the entire world as well! The trick here, you need to be influential yourself! This could mean others seeing you, your content, and or your domain as being an influential and credible source of information on a given subject that no one else can provide. This is where true influence begins, and you need it in order to rank. This is also where things get really tricky, as not everyone has the ability to outperform the rest of the internet in terms of the quality of their content.

We hear it all the time, create quality content to rank and drive traffic. Too bad the average person just isn’t going to create the level of quality needed in a typical article to rank at all. If you want to have an influence on readers, then you have to be influential yourself. The point here, quality social engagement can make your content rank, but not if that content is useless to the people you serve it too. Who are you trying to convince, the people you plan to make use of your content, or the search giants?

The Affect of Google+1’s and Shares on Ranking:

What exactly does a +1 do? When you +1 a post on Google+ or an article on a blog, you are effectively recommending that content directly to your followers, and to those on Google search. The keyword here is “recommending!” This doesn’t mean because you +1’d something that it will automatically rank in organic search, but rather that you’ve made your personal recommendation and you vouch for a particular piece of content or a person. While you may have thousands of +1’s and shares on your blog and social media posts, the major publishers on the web can get this level of interaction on a daily basis, making it much harder to compete with them. Many major publishers also have a dedicated audience that keeps their levels of engagement up, such as is the case with sites like Forbes, who know many daily visitors are returning visitors. The point here, larger publishers are getting more recommendations and from larger audiences, how will you compete against this? The answer, build social channels to build a dedicated audience yourself!

While +1’s are great as recommendations, they don’t appear to directly correlate with ranking, at least not by themselves. They could however be weighted higher giving certain circumstances, such as when a number of people link to a particular piece of content, or again, when someone influential or relevant to your social cause +1’s your content or shares it. The same goes for comments as well. That being said, not all +1’s are weighted equally, and a single +1 given the right circumstances could pack more weight than 100 others.

This was also the part of the social media ranking puzzle that confused me the most. In the early days of this site being published, after it achieved its first 10,000 shares , I thought I was really on to something, and Google would subsequently let it rank. This wasn’t the case however, not just with this site, but several others I built. Tens of thousands of +1’s and shares, yet the site hardly ranked at all, but why? With so many people vouching for the quality of my content I was perplexed as to why I didn’t manage to gain a foot hold in organic search. After months of confusion I was finally able to put the pieces together, and I realized I didn’t have the authority, not just as an author, but also as a domain, therefore I simply could not compete, and there was no way I was going to rank where I wanted too.

All those +1’s and shares were pointless because other authors, influencers, and professionals who had been on the web longer clearly out ranked me. They had more influence over people and more notoriety, such as a brand that’s been around for decades. I’ve since overcome this hurdle, and its one many of you will need to overcome as well. Although I warn you, it won’t be easy.

Despite having the social engagement to back me up, I was outpaced by larger publishers on the web, like Mashable, Forbes, and The Huffington Post, along with powerful influencers. My first thought, I would literally have to outperform them in order to out rank them, or even rank at all for that matter! It was a true wake up call for me. You literally have to be bigger and better than everyone else somewhere in your content strategy, otherwise you lose completely. There’s no room for 2nd best, not when you’re competing against a world of tech savvy internet professionals who want nothing more than to outperform you as well. The point here, you must establish yourself as an authority on a given subject, if not, you won’t rank!

The value of Links on Social Media:

When it comes to links, Google has publicly stated they treat all links across the web in the same manner. In this sense, links from social media can be counted just as a link from a domain would. However, Google has also stated they sometimes have trouble crawling links on social networks like Twitter, and others like Facebook have spent year’s aggressively blocking bots from ever crawling their networks to begin with. The point here, don’t count on Twitter or Facebook to raise your rank in SERPS. On the other hand, links on Google+ are often followed, and depending on the quality and engagement of a social post, those links may end up being counted for in webmaster tools. On the other hand, links from the about sections of communities and Google+ profiles are typically “nofollowed”, as are links in the description area of posts. Links made in the link section of a post might be followed, but it depends upon the factors I just mentioned, among many others. Lately Google has been on a nofollow binge across Google+.

Keep in mind even links that are nofollowed can still carry weight as far as anchor text goes. This means those links from Google+ communities, pages, and profiles can still carry some weight, its targeting the right keywords in your anchor text that matters here. Scoring for keywords doesn’t mean scoring for page rank though, these are entirely different things.

Other social networks like Pinterest may prove to be valuable. For one, this up and rising social network boasts all the tools you need to curate high quality content from your site, drive traffic, and affectively create valuable back links to your blog. Being as Google has no trouble crawling Pinterest, posts made to this network can prove to be quite valuable in terms of ranking. When it comes to links, its relevance and quality of content that help determine pagerank, something we all want and need. Including accurate and informative descriptions on Pinterest posts may help to increase the weight of links made there.

In the end, the quality of engagement on social media can have profound effects in terms of ranking on the web, especially in the case of Google+. Again, not all +1’s, comments, and shares are weighted equally either, and some will clearly hold more weight than others depending on who is engaging with you and your content. One thing to keep in mind here, the engagement itself is worthless if the content is worthless! There’s no way around this. Google also is putting weight on authors themselves it seems. I know I would never rank where I do now if it weren’t for my use of Google Authorship. There’s no better way for Google and other search engines to identify the author behind a piece of content. Even Microsoft has recommended people use Google Authorship in their posts, why do you think they would do that?

Microsoft’s Bing tends to rank the same content that Google does, and it’s likely their algorithms are very similar to Google’s. They publicly stated they support authorship, and for obvious reasons. The biggest hurdle up and coming publishers and authors will face on the web is building a real audience, cementing themselves as an authority on a given subject, and having a real influence on the people they serve. Either way, social media can seriously make you rank, but it’s getting a foothold on authority that remains a major challenge for smaller publishers on the web.