My name is Tommy Griffith, I'm the SEO Manager for Emerging Markets at PayPal and I run ClickMinded, an online SEO training class. Over and over again, I find myself constantly answering questions about the impact of social media on search engine results, and I thought that a little background on search engine quality signals would help shine some light on the topic. I wanted to elaborate a little more on my thoughts for all of you Social Media Today readers.
One of the most fascinating concepts behind Google's rise to the top of the search engine market over the last decade can be found in Sergey Brin and Larry Page's original thesis paper for Google
(originally called "Backrub"). You can read through the whole paper if you're a geek like me, but I think just the first sentence is enough to get the point across:
In this paper, we present Google, a prototype of a large-scale search engine which makes heavy use of the structure present in hypertext.
The original premise behind Google was a substantial improvement over all of the other search engine techniques being used at the time, which were basically ranking their results based on how many times a search term appeared on a webpage. I remember seeing pages a decade ago doing sneaky keyword stuffing techniques like "Buying used cars in San Francisco is good for buying used cars SF because when you buy used cars bay area, it is awesome!"
Google's fundamental offering was to use data from the rest of the web in order to determine the quality of a webpage and ultimately where they would rank in search engines. Both the authority of a site and the text being used in the link (aka "hypertext" or "anchor text") were factors in ranking better in Google.
It's an extremely complex algorithm with a very simple premise. If a page is being linked to with the phrase "a great website to buy shoes online", how likely is it that the site is an online shoe store? What if many other sites, which are all older, respected websites with a number of links pointing to them, are linking to this site with phrases similar to "buy shoes online"? Should this site be a candidate for a top ranking for the phrase "buy shoes online"? Probably.
The authority of a website linking to an external webpage, along with the text used in that link, is a quality signal. Rather than trusting a webmaster's content for information on where to rank their site in search results, why not ask the rest of the web?
It is this fundamental principle that you need to keep in mind when you look at the impact of social media and search engine results. Google's algorithm is updated with minor updates hundreds, possibly thousands of times per year. Major algorithm shifts seem to be happening every year or two. Regardless of what Google decides to factor into their rankings, one thing remains constant: quality signals matter.
How likely are you to spam your friends on Facebook or Twitter? How likely are you to send them to low quality article directories, or AdSense-covered blogs with thin content? How likely are you to link to scraped content or terrible affiliate eBook squeeze pages? You're not. The evolution of the major social media networks has created a culture of wanting to share only quality content that you're personally interested in. With that being said, from Google's point of view, why wouldn't you trust social media signals? Sure there's some small degree of spam and gaming the system with fake accounts, just like anything. But on the whole, if a large number of seemingly independent sources share a piece of content, wouldn't you, as a search engine, want to know that? In my opinion, social media engagement is simply the 2012 version of pulling data from "hypertext". Why trust a single source (the webmaster) when you have millions of other opinions (social media networks).
So what does this mean for you? There's plenty of SEOs and SMOs that could talk all day about social media tracking, reverse-engineering what the engines are looking for, and offering up a million different tactics, techniques and strategies for better rankings in SEO through social media manipulation. I take a staunchly different approach: Create great content, share the hell out of it and induce as many relevant Likes, Posts, Tweets, Retweets, +1's and Pins as possible from real, quality, actual people that are actually interested in your subject. You don't need 1,000 retweets from automated bots in New Delhi, you need 5 retweets from 5 people that actually enjoyed your content. Focus on sending a strong quality content signal to search engines, rather than worrying about the aggregate number of followers, friends, likes or retweets.
Social media sharing has become more than just the exclamation point on a website's entire link profile. We've seen a substantial increase in the importance of social media as a quality signal in search engine rankings, and there's no reason to believe it's becoming any less influential anytime soon.
If you're interested in learning more about SEO, I've created a simple SEO checklist that you should use before launching any new website.
Tommy Griffith has been doing search engine optimization for the last 4 years, was the co-founder of an online medical tourism agency based in Taiwan, and worked at a boutique digital marketing agency in Singapore. He is currently the SEO Manager for Emerging Markets at PayPal, and runs ClickMinded, an online SEO training class for startups. He feels weird writing about himself in the 3rd person, but admits that it sounds slightly more epic.