For many years now ranking high up in Google has been largely about acquiring links. This is not speculation or guesswork on the part of SEOs. Google themselves have come out and said as much themselves: “Your site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you” (see here)
But times are changing. This is not to say that backlinks to your site no longer have an effect. They do, and a big one at that. But Google are always refining their algorithm; they’re always looking for the most reliable signals of a webpage’s quality. Links to your site are thought to be one such signal. After all, if site A links to site B, we may assume that site A is recommending site B, presumably for the quality of its information. It’s as if site A is saying: “Check out site B – there’s useful content there!”
Of course, links are not the only way users can recommend sites. Another very common way for internet users to cast their votes is via social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Facebook “Likes,” Tweets on Twitter and Google + 1s are just three of the ways that internet surfers can recommend good content. And make no mistake – when people do this, Google pays attention.
In fact, it’s been this way for some time. In December 2010, a Google webmaster help video by Matt Cutts made it clear that Google had been using social media activity as a ranking signal. Cutts also pointed out that Google were trying to determine how trustworthy social media users were. In other words, Tweets and Facebook likes might improve a page’s ranking, but not all Tweets and likes are equal. One user’s Tweet might carry more weight than another. Cutts therefore advised webmasters not to go out and accumulate hundreds of Twitter followers indiscriminately, given that Tweets from these people might not have much weight.
The parallel with backlinks should be clear. You could have 1000 backlinks from spammy directories and they may not help your ranking at all. Or you could have 1 link from CNN.com and that might shoot you to the top of page 1. According to Cutts, it’s the same story with social signals. Getting 100 retweets from unknown, untrustworthy users probably won’t do much for your SEO. But if you managed to get a handful of Tweets or Likes from well-established authorities in your niche, you could certainly expect to see a boost in your rankings.
But why use social signals? Why not rely entirely on backlinks? Well, for one thing not everyone creates links. Millions of people use Google search every day. And many of these users are keen to recommend content. However, the vast majority have probably never created a hyperlink in their lives. Nor do they have a website to link from. But they probably do have a Facebook (or Twitter) account. So it’s easy for them to “Like” something or Tweet about.
A practical example might help. Suppose Emily goes online to buy a cheap 2nd generation iPad. She does a Google search and lands on a useful page that shows her where to buy ipad 2 tablets for the best price. Pleased with the page, Emily decides to recommend it to her friends and contacts. But like most users on the internet, Emily does not own a blog so she can’t create a link. She does, however, have a Twitter account and so she tweets about the page to her followers.
Not only does this help other people who may wish to buy 2nd generation iPads, but it also sends a message to Google. Emily is basically saying “If you want a cheap iPad 2 go here!” And this is exactly the sort of signal Google are looking for. As Google say in their SEO starter guide: “Users know good content when they see it and will likely want to direct other users to it.”
So Emily tweets about the page that helped her find a cheap iPad. Will her tweet improve the ranking of that page? It may have a little effect, but probably not much. Emily is after all just one user. However, if it had been a big authority Tweeting about the page (say TechCrunch or Cnet), there would almost certainly have been a more powerful ranking effect.
To summarize, Google now look at social signals in much the same way as they look at backlinks. In other words, it is not just about the number of Likes or Tweets you get, but also about the reputation and authority of the people behind them.