Those who are responsible for creating awareness of content take great pleasure seeing a shared link riding the waves across Twitter, Facebook, G+, or anywhere else the sharer wants to push it. And rightfully so. It is rewarding to see your efforts succeed and click traffic increase.
But from a search results standpoint, there are aspects to the social link graph that make the playing field uneven and out of balance.
The search engines have to know this, and hopefully are adapting and accounting for it before rewarding a site with higher search rank due to social signals.
There are several bothersome aspects to the social link graph and its impact on search results that merit discussion. Here are a few examples.
1. Product Effectiveness Versus Human Nature
To what extent does this matter with regards to search rank? To what extent does it matter at all? These are easy brands to like, so of course they will attract millions of likes.
It’s like they already know it’s futile. No parent is going to let their entire facebook friend lists or G+ circles know their kid has head lice. In an ironic twist, is it possible that the more important a product is to solving a real problem, the less likely that product is to ever catch a social media wave?
How about substance abuse facilities? Ready to tell the world you finally kicked that crack habit? Like that and share that story with all your friends and business associates on LinkedIn.
So the reality then is we can’t all be Skittles (21 million likes, 28k followers). We are what we are. If you sell grain elevators in Iowa, your Twitter feed is going to be very lonely.
The obvious question: how does the algorithm account for a product’s social potential across subject areas? You can’t penalize a site because it’s boring. Grain elevators are boring. But someone has to rank first, with or without a Facebook or G+ page.
2. Inclusion & Location Of Share Functionality
The decision as to where you place those little buttons on your page can significantly impact whether they get clicked or not, yet is often quite arbitrary, or forced into a specific spot due to design issues. I see many sites with long content pages that include the social click tiles at the very end of the article. That’s it.
But what if the article was absolutely awesome and I learned what I needed to know in the first paragraph and didn’t scroll any further? I never saw those social buttons. Impulse social click opportunity lost.
I know people can share content without their being any on-page buttons, but really, what percentage of the Web using population has added a “Tweet this” button to their browser toolbar? That number is likely very low.
So the reality is, your site’s ability to attract its maximum social share potential could be determined not by the quality of your content, but by your placement of the share function.
3. Intent Of Searcher
Your spouse is having some health issues and your researching it online. You find what you were looking for. His symptoms indicate potential problems. You print it out for him.
At that moment, you aren’t in share-with-the-world mode, no matter how stupendous the content was. No matter how many buttons the page has or where they are placed, you are not going to hop over to your facebook page and update your status to “Just found what I needed to help Jim with his ulcerative colitis!”
So the reality is that the choice to share or not is is also driven by the purpose the user of the site or search engine at that moment. Quality of content had nothing to do with it.
4. Incentivized Social Activity
“Like us on Facebook and receive 5% off your purchase”. Really? How does Mr. Algorithm factor in incentivized social signals? “Help us reach 100,000 followers!”
I’m not going to link to any of the many sites and brands that have a bounty or rewards based social strategy, but being honest here, that’s smart, makes perfect sense, and is a great use of social media for branding and click traffic.
But from a search perspective, doesn’t it muddy the water for the algorithm when one company is paying for followers or fans, and another company isn’t?
So the reality is we cannot say with certainty how the the social activity surrounding any brand came to be.
These are just a few issues worth discussing. There are many others. The social graph is in its infancy and it’s not going away. Google already shows 180,000 results for the phrase “social media expert”. Let’s all hope the collective wisdom on both sides of the social media and SEO equation can find balance.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.