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What Does Social Media Have to Do With SEO?

Nothing and Everything

In 2007 I wrote:

“My fear, with all the hype about social media marketing, is that people new to search marketing will believe it’s what SEO demands and what SEO is all about.

It isn’t. Not by a long shot.”

And yet by 2008:

“If you’re marketing websites, scary as it may sound, you need to learn about social media.”

So what changed?

Even before Panda and Penguin, how Google determined the relevancy of any given web page was changing. Traditionally, the main relevancy signals that search engines looked at were:
On-page relevance
Trust and authority
Links

With minor changes, Google still looks at on-page factors and the trust / authority of pages similarly to how they always have. But links are a different story. As part of Google’s original algorithm (and what made it such a great search engine), they treated links as a vote of confidence for a page. Their PageRank algorithm was and still is sophisticated enough to also understand that not all links are created equal. Google is able to consider the importance of the page that a link is on to decide how much credit (or credibility) that link should pass to the page it’s linking to.

And this worked fairly well for quite a while.

But website owners being greedy and SEOs being…well…SEOs, links became a commodity in order to provide higher rankings for web pages. One consequence of that was the scarcity of people linking to stuff they liked just because they liked it. Links pages that most websites used to have in order to provide additional resources for their site visitors are now thought of as “spammy” and rarely exist anymore. Sure, bloggers might still mention other sites that they like and even provide links to them, but many blog platforms automatically add the NoFollow attribute to those links, causing them to not be counted by Google. Plus, bloggers also understand the value of a link and don’t always disclose whether any money or gifts exchanged hands.

Beyond the gaming of links, however, the trouble with counting links as votes is that not everyone has a website or a blog. How do you count the votes of the average teenager or mom or business manager?

This is where social media comes into play.

It’s simple. Anyone can quickly and easily tweet, Facebook, Google+, Reddit, or Yelp their opinions about anything and everything.

With the ability to discuss news articles, blog posts, websites, business establishments, brands, universities, restaurants, and just life in general at the tip of the average person’s fingertips, it would be ridiculous for search engines not to pay attention.

While officially Google claims they’re not directly factoring social signals into their ranking algorithms, I don’t buy it for a second. They would be completely and utterly remiss not to, and they’re not that dumb. In fact, they’re pretty smart.

This is why my 2008 quote is even truer today than it was when I wrote it. If you’re marketing a business, having a strong social media presence is no longer optional. It is essential.

But just like links, not all social media signals or mentions are created equal. Don’t think that you can just create social media accounts, hook them up to the RSS feeds of your content and be done with it. The social media links back to your content (which generally have the NoFollow attribute on them) won’t provide any sort of signal to Google unless you truly participate.

If you want your “vote” to count in social media, here are a few tips you need to remember:

Be Selective in Whom You Follow

If you follow back everyone who follows you, your profiles will be less likely to be trusted. Just as Google’s PageRank algorithm can determine trustworthy pages based on who links to them, Google can also determine trustworthy social media accounts in the same way. If you’re following spambots, you’re not paying attention. And if you’re not paying attention, why should Google trust you?

Be Selective in What You Recommend

If you tweet or retweet low-quality content (be it your own or others’) it’s going to be noticed. Perhaps not by Google, but certainly by authority accounts who might otherwise have followed you. Which leads me to the next tip:

Your Accounts Must be Followed by Other Authorities in Your Space

Authorities don’t get to be authorities by following just anyone. They pick and choose based on who they themselves feel are qualified and trustworthy. Therefore, if other highly trustworthy people follow you, there’s a good chance you’re trustworthy as well.

Have a Byline and use Rel=Author on All Your Content

It’s imperative to associate a name and face with all of the content on your website these days, in order to ensure that Google knows it’s trustworthy. If you haven’t already, get your site up to speed with the Google Authorship program as soon as possible.

Install Twitter Card Code on Your Content Pages

If your target audience is on Twitter, you should definitely be participating there. And if you are, then you also need to add the Twitter Card code to your site. This adds more information and images to any content that you or others promote from your site. Right now, Twitter Cards give you a huge advantage over your competitors who aren’t yet using it (it’s fairly new). If you use WordPress, I highly recommend the Yoast WordPress SEO Plugin for this feature as well as the Rel=Author attribute mentioned above (and lots of other features as well!).

While it can take a lot of time to build up trustworthy social media profiles, in the long run it will be well worth it. Think about it. If your profiles are considered trustworthy, then every piece of content you mention will surely have a better chance of being noticed by Google. Of course, your mention alone isn’t going to provide much weight, especially if you’re talking about your own content. But if other trustworthy social media profiles are also citing that same content, you can be certain that it will be a very strong signal to Google.

Now, I can’t tell you with 100% certainty that this is what Google is doing today. But if they’re not, surely they will be very soon. In fact, in Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts’ latest Webmaster Video, What should we expect in the next few months in terms of SEO for Google?, he said that they were “working on a completely different system that does more sophisticated link analysis.”

Feel free to draw your own conclusion as to what that means!

About the author: Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

If you learned from this article, be sure to invite your colleagues to sign up for the High Rankings Advisor SEO Newsletter so they can receive similar articles in the future!

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