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Why Doesn’t Google Use Social Signals? – Here’s Why with Mark & Eric

Social media has become the primary way most people discover and share content. When a piece of content sends social media shockwaves, it must have an impact on its SEO value?
Not necessarily.
In this episode of Here’s Why, Mark & Eric will discuss why social signals are not the straightforward ranking signal that many assume them to be.

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Full Transcript:

Eric: Is that the way it works? Get enough plusses and likes and re-tweets on social media, and your search rankings rise? Some people think that’s true, that social signals have a direct SEO effect. In this episode of Here’s Why with Mark and Eric, I’ll ask Perficient Digital’s Mark Traphagen to reveal the truth about social signals and search rankings.
Eric: Ok Mark, let’s cut right to the chase. Does Google use signals from social media as a direct search ranking factor?
Mark: A lot of people assume that they must, Eric. In some cases that’s because they’ve had some one-off experience where content of theirs got some active attention on social media, and then rankings for the main keywords for that page went up for them. Or perhaps they’ve seen ranking factors correlation studies from MOZ and Search Metrics that show a fairly high correlation between social signals and search ranking.
For other people, it just seems to make sense that Google would make use of social signals. After all, on social media you have real people actively sharing and recommending content they like and find useful. So the assumption is that must be a very useful signal for a search engine.
Eric: Don’t think for a moment I didn’t notice that you didn’t actually answer my question, Mark.
Mark: Hmmm, maybe I should run for president.
Eric: Hey, you already have a job….for now.
But OK, we’ll come back to whether or not Google actually uses social in its ranking factors. For now, what about those one-off cases people see, and those ranking studies?
Mark: Well, two things happening around the same time does not mean that one caused the other, especially in an environment as complex as search rankings.
Though as humans we tend to assume that all coincidences are rare, in reality, when a large number of factors are in play, coincidences can be more common than we think. Furthermore, there can be unseen factors between the two things we observe that create an indirect causal link between the two things.
Eric: An indirect causal link? What do you mean by that?
Mark: In the case of social signals, it is likely that large exposure on social media increases the chances that website owners will see the content, thereby increasing the opportunities that they will link to it from their own content.
And, of course, we know that links are indeed a direct ranking factor. So in that case, it wasn’t the social activity itself that caused any ranking rise, but the social activity increased the likelihood of a factor that actually does affect rankings.
Eric: Ok, so it’s entirely possible that social signals have an indirect effect on search rankings, but that doesn’t prove they can’t also have a direct effect.
Mark: Man, I can’t slip anything past you! Yes, Eric, you’re right. You can’t prove something by proving a negative. But there are some other reasons why we think it highly unlikely that Google uses social signals as a direct ranking factor. For one thing, Google spokespeople have repeatedly stated that they don’t.
And in the case of Google’s Matt Cutts, he once put out a video where he explained why they don’t make direct use of social signals. Basically, he gave two reasons. First, in most cases, Google can only see a small portion of the content on a social site. This is especially true with Facebook.
We confirmed that with a study we did that showed only a small percentage of Facebook posts ever show up in Google’s index. Even with Twitter, where Google now has full access to all tweets, our studies show that the vast majority of tweets are never indexed by Google. By the way, you can view all those studies at the link showing on your screen.
Eric: So even when Google has full access, as it does with Twitter or Google Plus, they don’t try to index everything. It’s a case of TMI, too much information, even for Google.
Mark: Right Eric, for example, there are well over 500 million tweets created every day. And that leads to the second reason Matt Cutts shared about why they don’t use social signals directly. The signal is just too messy and indistinct. For example, I see Perficient Digital come up on Facebook, and I “”Like”” it. Why did I like it? Did I like it because I really do like Perficient Digital?
Did I like it because Eric’s picture is there, and he’s so handsome I’ve just got to like it? Is it because they have a coupon, a game, a funny cat picture? It’s not as easy as we think to discern the intent of social signals. Also, Matt noted that relationships on social can change too rapidly for Google to track. I might really like a certain brand on the day Google happens to crawl my social feed, but maybe something happens the next day that changes my mind, and I un-friend them. It’s a very volatile environment.
Eric: For a more detailed analysis of social signals and SEO, see Mark’s article at the link on your screen and in our show notes.

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Eric Enge

Eric Enge is part of the Digital Marketing practice at Perficient. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO.

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