Does the Future of SEO lie with Social Media?

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Social media connects people, and it is here to stay whether that be in the form of Facebook, Twitter or some other platform.  Social media platforms have transformed the way that we share information on a global scale and as a result the search engines are updating their own algorithms.  I thought I would write down (or type) my own views when it comes to how SEO will be affected by social media.

Google’s original PageRank system has been discussed at great length through the years, but there are a couple of things that can be taken from such an undiscerning algorithm.

-          Google look to explore the relationship between websites and how real people can give indications as to the quality of a certain piece of content or website.  The original PageRank algorithm based this upon links in that a trusted website was unlikely to link out to another website if it was not useful.  The link represented an endorsement of sorts because it not only reflected the quality of the linked content but also the fact that the linking website was willing to redirect their users to it.

-          Search rankings are not based upon keywords.  Yes, this may be obvious to just about anyone that has looked into SEO but has to be stated.

It must be remembered that if a search engine does not continually evolve it will return less and less relevant results.  Eventually people will get bored of having to venture into the barren wastelands of Page 2 or beyond and will simply start using another search engine.  Evolve or die.  So it is in their best interest to take heed of social media’s rise and explore how this is affecting web traffic.  Google and Bing have already admitted to taking into account Twitter activity (over 3 years ago) but SEOs are still unclear as to how much emphasis is placed upon social links vs website links.

Rand Fishkin recently explored the value of links for SEO in a Whiteboard Friday:

The algorithm that takes into account social signals would obviously have to be more complex than PageRank.  After all, there are more variables to take into account with social media, not least all the different platforms and their influence.  How much emphasis would one place on a share over a like?  Or retweets vs follows?  Would great content be judged upon engagement – and how would one quantify this?  Do 50 comments on an article count for more than 50 retweets of the article?

Sure, social signals are likely to stay subservient to links for a while longer.  However, if you think about it Google likes to use the behaviour of real people in order to determine rankings.  After all, real people provide real data.  What are the majority of people most likely to do when they find an awesome website?  I for one would be more likely to share it on my social media rather than placing a link on my website.  It is just so much easier.  So I ask you this, what is more representative of how information is shared across the web?

The flip side to the argument

One would struggle to argue that social signals would not provide a considerable amount of data about what the population are interested in.  I actually think that it would be more representative of incredible content than links due to the fact that people are judged by their peers on what they post to Facebook or Twitter.  Many people feel like if they post and it is not liked or shared, it is the digital equivalent of being exiled.  It is a reflection of your online personality and as such is treated with more delicacy.  People are more discerning about what they post and therefore a better signal of quality content.  However, there are some fairly major obstacles in social media’s way to the top of Google’s algorithm.

It is a more bipolar system.  Social media tends to operate with trends.  Each share, post or retweet has a lifespan.  Of course this is also true with links from websites – as time passes they become less and less relevant.  But much like how the world of financial trading has been made more volatile by the volume of computer based trading, social media has reinvented the limits previously attached to trends.  Think the Harlem Shake, or Gangnam Style.  The latter having nearly reached 2 billion views on Youtube.  Without the help of other social networks this would never have before been thought possible.  A recent study at Yale even showed that moods can now be spread globally by social media (! If social signals were to become the main aspect of Google’s search algorithm, they would likely struggle to rein in this volatility and therefore this instability would be reflected in the search results.

Google has invested a considerable amount of time making changes to its algorithm in order for it to be as effective as possible at recognising REAL behaviour, and subsequently penalising spam.  It would be naïve to consider that a social signal based algorithm would not have loopholes that could be exploited (at least at the beginning).  Likes and Follows can already be bought in their thousands so this would be the first aspect to tackle.  The social equivalent of link networks would also sprout up.  I suppose this is just an inevitability!

Finally, and possibly most importantly, SEO is no longer ruled by one particular ranking factor.  Keywords used to be the Overlord, but were replaced by Page Rank gaining links as the Grand Master and then subsequently by great content.    Of course, some factors are more powerful than others, but search engine algorithms have now become far too comprehensive to focus solely on one aspect of search.  As Rand said in his Whiteboard Friday above, there is a theory of the SEO ‘pie chart’ only having a limited amount of space.  The more metrics that are taken into account, the more others are squeezed.  Social media will not become the one and only rankings factor.

Where Does That Leave Things?

When I started writing this article, I was sure that both Google and Bing would be placing much more emphasis on social media over the coming months and years.  I still think that this is true.  I did have some second thoughts as I was thinking about the flip side to the argument.   The issue is that our behaviour on the web has become far too complex for search engines to place too much reliance on one particular function.  Furthermore, if search engines were to focus on social it would simply result in the development of social media spam on a much larger scale.

After all that, the only significant conclusion that I can come to is that social media has to become a primary tool in an SEO’s arsenal.  It will become a larger factor in SEO than it currently is; one only has to look at how Google are integrating Google + into everything they do and also the rise of Google Authorship and Google Author Rank.  How large a factor is a moot point.  Social media is being pushed forward by the huge emphasis placed on a website’s content.  What is an incredible way to spread great content?  You guessed it.  Social Media.  So although the amount of likes, shares, retweets, +1’s, etc will influence the search results and should be taken into account by SEOs, when looking at marketing from a more comprehensive view point social media cannot be ignored.  I am going into more depth on this in a later article.  For now, what are people’s thoughts on how social metrics are going to affect SEO in the future?

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