I hear a lot of sales people always telling business owners that social media helps their SEO. Does it? It CAN, but most of the time it won't. Let me explain.
SEO, or search engine optimization, has become very technical in recent years. There are hundreds of ranking factors that search engines use to determine where to rank your website, and social media qualities are not one of them. Google is the largest search engine, and the only one for the most part that ever communicates anything about its ranking signals. Three months ago at SMX Advanced, Gary Illyes from Google told us that social signals are not used at all as a ranking signal and that they would not be for the foreseeable future. In order to understand why this is, we must walk through 5 years of Google History and understand the technical aspects of social media and how it relates to SEO.
Here's how Google works. It has what we call "spider bots" that constantly crawl the web and digest its information. When a spider bot digests that information, it may put it in Google's "index". The index are the pages of the web that Google ranks in its search engine. Anything not indexed, will not rank for keywords or phrases. Google's mission, according to them, is to provide the best search experience for their users. In order to do this, they are always crunching data to try and determine the best "quality signals" to create the best search results.
What makes a good quality signal? Well, it has to improve the results by getting the user to the best answer to their query fast. This is Google's philosophy on the matter. You can start to get a feel for this by reading their webmaster guidelines. In order to improve search results, they must have reliable signals. However, the "spider bots" are unable to read the data from most social media sites, because it is often gated by a login, or requiring user permission to see information. They can get at some of it, but not all of it. Matt Cutts explains here. Also, John Mueller elaborates some here. Everything he said here was backed up by Gary Illyes in June of this year. Just so we are on the same page, I will walk you through some Google history.
In 2010, Matt Cutts, Google's head of web spam at the time, told us they were in fact using social signals. At the time, they had a deal with Twitter that allowed them to see the entire Twitter-sphere and get at the data. Well, in 2011 that agreement collapsed, and they no longer had access to the data. At that time, they had already spent a great deal of resources changing their ranking factors to include Twitter. During the 4 year gap on Twitter, they determined that it was just too risky of a proposition to rely on third party data they might not always have access to. Without that data, as Matt Cutts says in the video, it is an "imperfect web", and they can't use imperfect data for ranking signals.
It is now 2015, and Google indicated in June that social signals are not ranking factors. So, why do some still claim social media will help your SEO? Well there are three reasons. The first is that many of those people are marketers and sales people, not technical SEOs. Their lack of understanding of the technical aspects of SEO can be harmful, because the knowledge gaps can cause issues with strategy. Secondly, they confuse correlation with causation. In data science especially, it is important to understand that correlation does not always mean causation. Matt Cutts indicates specifically in the above video that this is what they are doing. This is a common mistake. Walmart has almost 33 million likes on Facebook, and they rank well in Google, so this must be a ranking signal in Google. This is not true, however there would be a strong correlation between big brands and Google ranking for other reasons. Lastly, social can help your SEO indirectly, but for many companies, it will barely make a dent.
So, how can social help your SEO? Well, there is no doubt that there is good marketing potential with social. After all, it gives you the ability to regularly touch a lot of people. However, as Matt Cutts said, it is treated no differently than any other website. This means you need to use social media to obtain "off-social" ranking signals. For instance, if you were to write a great article and then send it to people with blogs that you are connected with on social media, you may get some links to your website out of the deal. Since links are still important in SEO, social indirectly helped your SEO. Don't get me wrong, the links from your social accounts can potentially help your SEO. However, as most SEOs know, Google heavily diminishes the value of any links from a domain beyond the first one, so posting links on social will not really help you much. In effect, you should have an account, use it for its marketing value, and see if you can achieve some off-site ranking factors.
If you have an account, you may not get enough activity to ever actually achieve much in the way of SEO with it, especially if you don't have someone consistently working the account. This may be well worth it to a B2C company that sells to consumers, but less so to a B2B. In cases such as these, at least from an SEO perspective, it is important to prioritize tasks for maximum impact. In many cases if the company does not have the resources to devote to being active on social media, there are other priorities to consider SEO-wise.
So, are we really just talking semantics when someone claims that social will help their SEO? No. Only if you feel comfortable also saying that shaking hands will help with SEO, or that calling people on the phone will help SEO. So the next time someone tells you that social media helps your SEO, feel free to reference this article. I would be most grateful.