Anyone—anyone—can make a website. Anyone can create a Twitter account, start a blog, or launch a Facebook fan page. And anyone—from 13-year-old girls to 45-year-old men—can pretend to be an attractive 20-year-old woman on the Internet.
In the world of Internet spam, scams, and shams, we’ve learned to be wary of what we find online.
Search engines are no different. Too often we forget that search engines aren’t just a tool to help us find news articles or guacamole recipes. Search engines are running a business—a business whose success relies on providing you legitimate, relevant results.
Fail to give their searchers what they want, and they’re fast on their way to joining Dogpile and Ask Jeeves in the search engine graveyard.
Naturally, Google, Bing, and Yahoo all want to ensure they’re only returning trustworthy and legitimate search results to their users. To ensure quality, the engines work to determine a site’s credibility.
Theoretically, the more you please and earn trust from your past visitors, the more likely you’ll please and earn trust from new visitors. But how do the searchbots measure an abstract human concept like credibility?
Factors To Improve Upon & Measure Your Site’s Credibility
The search engines evaluate a variety of factors when determining your site’s legitimacy. We’ve known about certain tried-and-true factors that can boost your site’s credibility for years, including:
- In-Links: The search engines see in-links (links leading to your website from external sites) as signs of your trustworthiness. In-links are the virtual equivalent of someone “vouching” for your site. The more successful and credible the other site, the better you look to Bing and Google.
- Out-links: Contrary to in-links, out-links are the links on your site that link to external sites. If your links are broken or the external site is irrelevant or outdated, your search rankings can take a hit.
- A clean, error-free site: Broken/missing images, spelling mistakes, or 404 errors are all poor signs of a site’s credibility.
- Traffic: Theoretically, the more traffic you get, the more relevant you are to searchers.
- An easy-to-navigate website: A site that’s easy to navigate can reassure new visitors that your site contains the information they need. If your site is difficult or confusing to navigate, your site’s bounce rate (the percentage of users who immediately leave your site) will be higher— indicating to the search engines that your site wasn’t a successful match for those search queries.
- An XML sitemap: Just like your site must be easy to navigate for humans, it should be similarly easy to navigate for the search spiders, too. An XML sitemap acts as a “road map” that leads bots down each interconnected page of your site, allowing them to index your page more quickly and accurately. Most websites have two sitemaps: a text-based list of pages within the sites and an .xml file for the spiders.
Social: The New Factor That’s Increasingly Affecting Your Credibility
For a long time, SEO and social were two entirely separate departments. A successful company had a social team and an SEO team and the two rarely mingled. It made sense: SEO was all about being found, and social media was about keeping those who’ve already found your brand. SEO set the bait and social kept ‘em on the hook.
Today, SEO and social are inseparable. Customers can just as easily find a company through Twitter as they can Google — and those social media links are busy boosting a company’s SEO signals.
As Rand Fishkin from SEOmoz noted, social now has the ability to affect your search results — meaning that all that traditional SEO legwork you put in could be displaced because a searcher’s Aunt Myrtle shared a related link.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however—after all, if Aunt Myrtle shares your link, it might be your own site that gets a free pass to the top of the search rankings.
Social Puts The Human Back In Search
Incorporating social into search has one huge benefit for users: it lets humans, not algorithms and search spiders, have a say in search results.
Generally speaking, which link would you rather click: one chosen for you based on keyword density, or one deemed relevant by 10,000 other users?
Hence, the Google +1 button: it gives any user with a Google account the opportunity to publicly vouch for a link. The same applies for social media: before Twitter and Facebook, only content creators and site owners had the power to send in-links to other sites; today, anyone with a social media account can share (and thus “vote” for) any link.
Naturally, now that Google and Bing are bringing social to the SEO party, users now have a variety of social factors to play with when attempting to boost site or brand credibility.
Granted, social SEO is still a new concept, but it’s assuredly the direction where search is heading. Below you’ll find some of the emerging social factors that can boost your site or your brand’s credibility.
Author / Social Authority
The search engines have recently started evaluating a social media user’s credibility just like they evaluate a site’s credibility. Google and Bing have both admitted to considering an author’s authority when incorporating social signals into search results.
Take it from Bing, in a Search Engine Land interview with Danny Sullivan from December 2010:
“We do look at the social authority of a user. We look at how many people you follow, how many follow you, and this can add a little weight to a listing in regular search results. It carries much more weight in Bing Social Search, where tweets from more authoritative people will flow to the top when best match relevancy is used.”
Google also considers a user’s authority when ranking search results. In the below screenshot, a Google search for “blogging” reveals an article by ProBlogger’s Darren Rowse—along with Darren’s Google+ profile picture and the number of G+ Circles Darren appears in.
To make a quick (if imperfect) analogy, author authority is similar to Klout. On Twitter, for example, the search engines might consider such factors as:
- Follower to following ratio
- Number of postings a day
- Number of lists the user appears on
- Number of @mentions a day
The Retweet Factor
Retweets from a power Twitter user can affect your search rankings just like in-links from an authoritative, established source.
As Jennifer Lopez revealed in her case study on SEOmoz, a retweet from the power user Smash Magazine about the SEOmoz Beginner’s Guide to SEO led to the site receiving significant traffic for the search term “beginner’s guide”—a term that had never brought the site traffic prior to the Smashing Magazine RT. The SEOmoz guide still ranks #2 in the Google search rankings for “Beginner’s Guide” to this day.
Search engines can also consider a tweet’s retweet rate. If a link tweeted to 1000 followers gets 100 retweets, it’s got a 10% retweet rate—and that link may do better in search rankings than a link with a 3% retweet rate.
Network, Network, Network
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know—or rather, who you’re engaging with on social media. Interacting with Twitter power users boosts your own credibility.
Of course, that doesn’t mean a food blogger should start tweeting Lady Gaga or Anderson Cooper. Relevance matters: if that food blogger starts a Twitter conversation with Wolfgang Puck or Anthony Bourdain, the blog’s credibility as an authoritative source for recipes may get a huge bump.
Build Your Links and Your Social Presence at the Same Time
Why do companies launch linkbuilding campaigns?
- To increase their visibility and credibility.
What do shared links on social media do?
- Increase visibility and credibility.
In-links (via BOTH social media sites and “traditional” external links from sites) are incredibly valuable to search engines, since they prove a user found it useful, not a searchbot.
The more shares you get, the more people are “voting” for your site. As I wrote previously, going viral can boost both your SEO signals and your credibility.
Encourage Sharing (& Trick Out Your Sharing Options)
If you want people to share your content (and thus boost your credibility), you’ve got to ask for it. A simple “If you found this content useful, share it!” can do a world of sharing good for a website.
Likewise, the more sharing options you include on your website, the easier it’ll be for users to share your site. It’s much easier for readers to click one link and instantly share your content than to go to individual social media sites.
The Obvious Downside of Social Credibility
In theory, credibility works the same way in the virtual world as it does in the real world. Before search engines will list your site or bump you up in the search rankings, they’ve got to trust you—similarly, your customers have got to trust you before they’ll buy from you.
The bright side of building your social credibility is that you’re building trust with both the search engines and your future customers at the same time.
However, in the real world, no one will instantly trust your brick-and-mortar business: you’ve got to earn your customers’ trust through quality customer service, word of mouth, and good publicity (staying in business for a long period of time helps, too). Online credibility is built in the same slow, eventual way.
Establishing your credibility takes time. There’s no shortcut. There’s no get-trust-quick scheme. Do good work over a long period of time and you’ll establish credibility. It’s as simple—and as difficult—as that.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.