It’s Not “He Said, She Said” Over Google Rankings & Facebook Shares

On Tuesday morning, SEOmoz’s Rand Fishkin presented evidence at our SMX Advanced conference that there’s a high correlation between Facebook Shares and ranking well on search engines. In afternoon, the head of Google’s web spam team Matt Cutts said that Google doesn’t see Facebook Share data at all. An SEO-search engine catfight? No, both actually agree.

I’ve been somewhat amazed to read some of the tweets this evening that are positioning what Matt said as somehow contradicting what Rand said. A few on Twitter are even squaring off over whom to believe. That’s dumb, when both “sides” agree.

Facebook Shares & Search Engine Rankings

I moderated our morning panel, The New Periodic Table Of SEO, where Rand talked about findings from the latest SEOmoz ranking factors survey. Facebook Shares, he said, were the top factor that correlated with high search engine rankings. From his presentation:

But Rand never said this meant that Facebook Shares were causing top rankings.

Correlation Versus Causation

Correlation isn’t causation. It’s a mantra that the folks at SEOmoz have learned to stress over the years. Rand’s presentation highlighted this from the start:

I fear that saying this still doesn’t help, because no one really seems to take on the difference. The terms still get used interchangeably.

Both just feel like “dead words” without much meaning behind them. I’m too tired at the moment to brainstorm better words. But let me try to explain the difference perhaps in another way.

If A Bird Flies Past Your Window…

Let’s say that every time you look out a window, you see a bird fly by. There’s a strong correlation between you looking out the window and birds flying past.

But is looking out the window causing birds to fly past? Who knows? You’d have to research in various ways whether glancing out that window was a causation factor making birds decide to fly by.

It could simply be that birds are always flying by the window, so often that every time you look up, you see one. The correlation of you seeing birds isn’t actually causing the birds to appear.

When it comes to search engine ranking factors, researching what is having an impact is incredibly hard, because there are so many variables involved — thousands of sub-factors. It’s easy to mistake a correlation as a causation factor.

So Who’s Right? Both!

Back to today’s “dispute.” In the afternoon, I talked with Matt as part of the “You&A With Matt Cutts” session. Matt made a point to clarified that Google didn’t use any Facebook Share data. He was very specific. Google couldn’t see this data at all, due to Facebook blocking it.

That statement has caused some to view what Matt said as contradicting what Rand said. After all, Rand said Facebook Shares were helping pages rank better. If Matt says Google doesn’t see share data, then someone’s wrong!

The problem with this supposed contradiction is that Rand never said that Facebook Shares were boosting rankings. He simply said that SEOmoz found top ranking content had a lot of shares. It was correlated with that, but that didn’t indicate causation.

Rand was very clear about this. He said several times there was no proof that shares were causing ranking boost. He even said at one point that the shares might have nothing at all to do with the rankings.

Facebook Shares = Quality Content?

So why care at all about knowing such a correlation? For one, as I discussed with Matt, it can be a useful metric for publishers to know if they’re struggling to tell if they have quality content.

Google repeatedly says that it wants to reward quality content, but there’s no quality meter you can wave over your pages to tell if they’re up to snuff.

However, if there’s a strong correlation between pages that get shared on Facebook and pages that rank well on Google, then it could be that shares work as a good proxy for figuring out what Google considers quality — even if Google doesn’t use that share data itself.

In other words, if you’re producing content that doesn’t get shared much, it might not be that great. If it’s not that great to the humans who share things on Facebook, then Google might not like it either. After all, Google’s ranking algorithm tries to mimic what humans like.

We Interrupt This Story For A Postscript!

Since I wrote the story above, Rand’s been conducting a test to see if he can verify if Google is indeed gathering Facebook Share information. We also had some conversation on Twitter about what Google might or might not pull.

Originally, I started to write this postscript as an email to Rand picking up from our Twitter discussion, given that the issues are hard to explain 140 characters at a time. But I thought everyone would be interested, so I’m sharing it here. No pun intended.

It’s also pretty late (6AM ET), so if there are typos, sorry. I’ll fix them later.

What Matt Said

I don’t have the video yet of my talk with Matt, where he discussed the issue with Facebook Shares, so I can’t quote him exactly. But from our live blogging, we have this:

Google doesn’t get Facebook shares. We’re blocked by that data. We can see fan pages, but we can’t see Facebook shares.

From the Bruce Clay coverage:

SEOmoz said Facebook shares in an earlier session helps ranking. Matt says Google doesn’t get Facebook shares. If someone blocks them from crawling, they can’t call that content. Google can see Fan pages but that’s it. The most correlated thing (Facebook shares) is not a signal [Google]  uses. If you have great content, it may get a lot of links and that’s no surprise.

From Outspoken Media’s coverage:

If someone blocks us from crawling, we can’t crawl that content. Facebook gives data to Bing, Blekko, etc, but they don’t give it to us. They can see Fan pages, but that’s it. They don’t see the sharing data.

From the paraphrases, there’s the impression that Google can’t crawl Facebook to gather shares.

But It Does Crawl!

Google isn’t blocked from crawling all of Facebook, however. Indeed, it crawls many pages. Facebook wants many of those pages crawled.

Potentially, if you share a link on your personal wall, Google might see that share. After all, it does see a limited version of personal walls. This is one way it can determine some of your Facebook friends. The article below explains more about this:

In that article, however, you’ll see a personal wall shown without any of the shares on it. I’m pretty sure that Facebook isn’t showing shares on any personal walls. If that’s the case, then Google isn’t getting shares that way.

It’s a different situation with public fan pages. Google does crawl these for web search, since Facebook doesn’t block them.

Moreover, Facebook considers everything on a fan page to be public, which means Google and other search engines aren’t shown a limited view, as with personal pages. They see the entire fan page, including all shares on it.

You can see this with Search Engine Land’s own fan page, as cached by Google. All our shares (which are links back to our own articles) are on the page. However, the shares seem to be tagged nofollow, so they might be seen but not actually recorded in Google’s index.

I’m pretty sure that all this means that shares aren’t seen in web search, as Matt said. I’d feel even more confident about this double-checking if I could get the text-only version of Google’s cached copy of the page to load. However, that does some funky redirecting — and disabling Javascript doesn’t help.

But Rand Got Indexed!

In Rand’s test, he created a page on the web, then shared that page only through Facebook, on his fan page. About an hour later, that page turned up in Google:

Indeed, when I looked, both Rand’s original share and another one showed up, as shown above. So there you go. Proof that Google indexes Facebook Shares!

Yes and no. Look over to the left, and you’ll see that the results are only showing for Google Realtime Search. That’s a completely separate search engine from Google web search (which is what the SEOmoz study looked at, and what Matt was responding to).

When it comes to web search, so far, the shares aren’t showing:

Now, potentially I’ve messed up Rand’s experiment by linking to his share outside of Facebook. But someone else has already done that, at this point, I can tell from the comments.

More important, Google has a deal with Facebook specifically allowing it to pull in Facebook fan page information. It gets this information directly from Facebook through a feed, to my understanding, rather than having to crawl it. The story below explains more:

That feed probably drops the nofollow attribute, by the way — just as Twitter’s does, which is why you see the shares showing despite nofollow on the public page. The story below explains more about this:

Does The Fan Page Data Flow To Web Search?

Could the data from Google Realtime Search be used to support web search. IE, if Google Realtime Search can see Facebook Shares on fan pages, can those shares then be counted by web search.

Potentially. In fact, Google’s given the impression in the past that this is the case. In our What Social Signals Do Google & Bing Really Count? article from last December, I asked Google:

Do you track links shared within Facebook, either through personal walls or fan pages?

Google said:

We treat links shared on Facebook fan pages the same as we treat tweeted links. We have no personal wall data from Facebook.

This means that yes, Google sees Facebook fan page data for web search and yes, if those fan pages include shares, it would see that data as well.

Now in March, Google sent confusing signals about my original article, saying that tweeted links were not used in web rankings.

All I can tell you is that my original article had been checked and double-checked by Google before it went out. To my understanding, it remains valid. Tweets can have an impact on web search though a much more dramatic impact for Google Realtime Search, Google Social Search and Google Personalized Search.

The articles below cover this more:

I think this also means that Facebook fan page data, which includes shares, may have an impact on web search, in very limited cases. But officially, Matt’s saying that’s not the case.

Are All Shares Counted?

Is Matt mistaken? I’ll double-check on this again. Possibly, he meant that Google can’t get Facebook Shares in the sense getting them from where most happen (as I’d guess), on personal walls, rather than on public fan pages.

Certainly the stats that SEOmoz is getting from the Facebook Open Graph for its survey are a mixture of personal wall shares plus public fan shares (see the cool tool Shared Count for an example of this). But Google, at best, is only seeing some of that.

Why can’t Google tap into the entire Facebook Open Graph and see all shares in the way that seemingly anyone else can? Well, Google can — if it wants to agree to Facebook’s terms. And Google doesn’t want to do that. The article below explains this more:

This, by the way, makes Google’s acquisition of PostRank last week very interesting. Potentially, that gives Google insight into Facebook sharing data without Google having to let Facebook see into its actual search network. Of course, if that’s the case, potentially Facebook might cut PostRank off…

Since the PostRank purchase is so new, at best, it seems that Google might be seeing a portion of Facebook shares that in turn could be used in web search. But since it can’t see them all, I’d be surprised if they were using them as a significant ranking signal.

Finally, Rand had pointed out something else that made it seem as if Google was using share data:

What’s happening here isn’t that share data is being leveraged. Instead, Google is using the limited data about friends from personal walls, to my understanding. Again, the article below explains more:

Finally, just a reminder that Facebook Shares are not the same as Facebook Likes. Could Google count Likes?

Likes aren’t links, as with Shares. Likes are associated with shared links or fan pages. Potentially, Google could crawl open fan pages to discover links that are well Liked or pages themselves with many Likes.

Do Factors Really Matter?

And now, back to the last two paragraphs of my original story….

In the end, the debate over whether one can scientifically measure all the factors that a search engine likes or doesn’t like is ages-old in the space. It can be way too easy for those doing surveys, or those reading them, to mistake correlation with cause. It can definitely be way too easy for people to get lost among the various factors.

But looking at the data and combining that with what’s confirmed by the search engines or suspected within the space can also be useful, too. That, by the way, is what our recently released Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors aims to do — focus on the most proven or strongly believed factors. So, be sure to check that out.

Related Posts

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: SEO | Google: Social Search | SEO: General | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Ben Cook

    Danny, while Rand never said Shares would improve rankings, they have heavily promoted their correlation data which as you mentioned, is often interpreted as cause.

    Personally I’d much rather have SEOmoz dedicate their time and effort to tests that show results rather than simply illustrating a fairly low correlation (the highest factors are in the 0.2-0.3 range).

    That being said, Rand does seem to be contradicting something Matt said.

    In this tweet (!/randfish/status/78265937895239680) Rand says Google is clearly consuming the Opengraph+share data while Matt says Google doesn’t see the share data at all (according to this post).

    Unless I’m missing something only one of those two statements can be accurate.

  • RustyS

    A causation link may perhaps still explain the correlation, but more likely in the other direction. Higher ranking content will be seen more and likely will be more often shared. So rank might be influencing shares.

  • Rand Fishkin

    Hi Danny – thanks for the article and clarification. Matt’s statement was curious in light of this – – anyone who’s logged in to Google can see sharing annotation from Facebook (you don’t even need to connect your Facebook account).

    In addition, I think Matt did not specifically say they don’t use OpenGraph data, which is where the Moz correlation stats come from. I’d agree it’s possible that Google doesn’t use Facebook data via the OpenGraph, but… well, it seems unlikely. I think a lot of SEOs are going to be running tests of URLs they share on Facebook, and I suspect we’ll see something.

    All that said, it’s possible Facebook shares simply have a very high correlation and no causal impact, but at such high numbers (and even controlling for links), it’s weird. I think it begs the question of why.

  • Michael Martinez

    These “correlation studies” don’t show that any scientifically valid correlations exist between anything.

    That said, two correlated events can share the same cause without either being the cause of the other.

    And all THAT said, these “correlation studies” are not looking at the factors that search engines use to determine rankings — they are just compiling statistics about attributes of Websites that happen to appear in the search results.

    To get to the ranking factors you have to be able to corroborate the “factors” you test for — and these tests are not designed to do that.

  • Judah Macabee

    On Twitter @randfishkin is posting screen shots of search results to prove his point, but he’s not proving any point at all. Reason he’s not is because his screen shots are of search results from real time search. I can find no evidence that Facebook shares are showing up in the traditional Google search.

    The real time search is not the traditional Google search so for Rand to say that “there’s a high correlation between Facebook Shares and ranking well on search engines” does not seem accurate.

    Rememeber that he runs a company selling people like us tools to rank better. If Rand’s assertions are true or if he sells them as true than he sells more products.

  • Sunny

    As far as I remember from my math lessons a direct correlation has a factor 1. We here see a factor of 0.25 . That’s not a very strong correlation. So I support, what RustyS says. High ranking causes more views, getting shared more often.

    On the other hand I can imagine, that shares increase traffic, if not links as well, a metric that could influence Google rankings…

  • Julian Grainger

    Google has confirmed in the past they look at the influence of a profile within a social network. They have stated “We treat links shared on Facebook fan pages the same as we treat tweeted links. We have no personal wall data from Facebook”.

    They have also stated that if Facebook doesn’t give them the data they can get it from other people. This can only mean they are accessing social graph data from internet providers in the same way as Media6Degrees, or in similar vain, Hitwise does for traffic data.

    The correlation from SeoMoz will be indicative of the probability of the content being shared by influencers. In other words, the shares are not the cause but a good measure of the strength of the vector to influencers. And in that it is useful data.

  • Ciarán Norris

    There’s also the fact that Bing absolutely is using this data. It doesn’t mean much in Europe where they have no share, but surely this is worth considering in the US?

  • nuttakorn

    I think Google could index partial of Facebook Profile Share, you can try by using this query :
    site: , it returns you 139,000,000 results, i’ve checked many of pages are share from Facebook Profile not Facebook Fan Pages.

  • Ilian Iliev

    Awesome post and explanation of the problem. Do you have stats about how much Google Realtime Search is used compared with Google Search.

  • Matthew C. Egan

    I think ultimately Julian summed it up perfectly, “The correlation from SeoMoz will be indicative of the probability of the content being shared by influencers. In other words, the shares are not the cause but a good measure of the strength of the vector to influencers. And in that it is useful data.”

    Shares are a great indicator that the content is worth talking about, and if it’s worth talking about, it’s worth linking to. Likes on the other hand, or links posted on Fan Pages, or whatever, is still up for some debate because we know Google scrapes SOMETHING from Facebook, but according to what Rand has tested thus far he’s not able to support that a Facebook share is as valuable as a Tweet has proven to be.

    You tweet something, it’s up there in a matter of hours, but his Public Fan Page Share test has thus far proven ineffective. I only find his Facebook post on Google, not the link he posted.

  • Dave_Lawlor

    I can tell you that from watching the twitter stream coming out of #SMX that an overwhelming amount of people tweeting did take it for a fact that correlation is causation, it was by far the most prevalent tweet I saw from the stream for a good amount of time that Facebook shares promote ranking. I cant imagine that so many people would take it wrong if it wasn’t presented that way.

  • Michael Martinez

    Dave_Lawlor: “…an overwhelming amount of people tweeting did take it for a fact that correlation is causation.”

    Captain Barbossa: It would strain credulity at that.

  • Dave_Lawlor

    @Michael Martinez I probably worded that wrong myself, meaning that most of the people tweeting from that session really weren’t looking at the root data they just took a “take away” from Rands presentation

  • Nate

    Given the confusion amongst the general audience, I’m questioning the wisdom in releasing causation data without an expert causation overlay. Interesting how the SEOmoz authority has the second highest correlation. Funny that.

    I think the study is good, and the SEOmoz team are producing some great stuff, but it might need a little filtering. Still, a little confusion does generate a good amount of buzz and backlinks, no?

    Agree with Sunny -Dessous: the Facebook shares could be triggering site visits and content usage metrics that will never show up in a Google SERP.

    Nice coverage of the discussion Danny, really enjoyed it.

  • Michael Martinez

    Dave wrote: \…meaning that most of the people tweeting from that session really weren’t looking at the root data.\

    I understood what you meant. However, most people in the SEO industry don’t habitually question everything they hear from SEO conference panelists. The majority of us probably wait for some sort of corroboration. But it usually takes some Captain Kirk in the back of the room to ask, \Why does God need a starship?\ before people wake up and start to say, \Huh?\

  • Arnie K

    Just want to chime on two points.
    1) Danny amazing piece of work considering you have a conference to run and you did this so late at night.
    2) Ben – “a fairly low correlation (the highest factors are in the 0.2-0.3 range).” Sorry but using Spearman, a 0.3 correlation is actually quite strong.


  • Jeff Ferguson

    Danny, I don’t think the point of the backlash was that one side was right and the other was wrong, but instead that the correlation studies are done at all.

    Per my blog post yesterday (

    “SEOMoz* likes to beat the drum of “correlation does not equal causation” as a way to keep people from overreacting to these results, but that’s just not the way humans work. Our attention spans last about as long as it takes to get the disturbing data and drops off long before the warning not to panic.”

    These studies run rampant SEOs use them in their optimization when they shouldn’t and they end up doing real damage to their sites or waste time on items that don’t make a difference (in general terms, in this case, getting Facebook likes and shares isn’t a bad thing in the name of social media marketing, but it shouldn’t be done under the guise of helping with SEO).

    As the title of my post says, I don’t care what others think affects Google’s rankings… I care what Google knows.

  • Michael Martinez

    Annie, any value between 0 and .5 is considered a “weak correlation” for Spearman. 0 to .25 indicates no significance. 0.25 to .5 indicates *some* significance.

    The SEOmoz data doesn’t prove much in the way of correlations and certainly isn’t very relevant to RANKING FACTORS.

  • Michael Martinez

    Sorry, Arnie. I misread your name (I blame the font, not my eyes).

  • Arnie K

    Hey Michael, no problem on the “Annie”. I respectfully disagree on the correlation values, but totally agree that this data does not PROVE anything. I think the only thing the Facebook shares proves is that good content gets shared. And good content gets links.

  • Ben Cook

    Danny, thanks for the postscript on this post.

    I think it illustrates at least two important points.

    If the blog coverage for Bruce Clay took Rand’s presentation as saying that Facebook Shares help rankings, it seems reasonable that a large majority of the people listening took it that way as well.

    At the very least, I think SEOmoz needs to be MUCH more responsible in the way they present their correlation data. Saying \Correlation is not causation\ but then speaking about the data as if it were, doesn’t cut it.

    Also, as I mentioned in my first comment and as discussed in the post script, it appears there needs to be some further clarification of this issue because some of what Rand is saying most definitely contradicts what I think we all understood Matt to be saying. Given that, it seems like it actually is a case of \he said, he said\ at least in terms of what Facebook Share data Google has.

  • Ivan Temelkov

    Some great controversy here indeed. I know that Google isn’t fond of Facebook or its practices although apparently Facebook Shares have correlation and reflect on SEO visibility. Thanks for sharing the news from SMX guys.

  • Chris Horton

    Wow. Yeah this is all confusing and really doesn’t seem to prove much at all other than Google does see activity on Facebook. One should also consider that if you search Google for a term like “bussangle nefaribook”, is there something in the algorithm that says 1) is this a misspelling, a) if yes, provide alternative, b) if no, is this something we don’t know about? And if it’s that “b” option, does it then go into Social Media overdrive attempting to locate other people that are using that term in Facebook, Twitter, Digg, etc.

    All Google cares about at that point is to find some type of relevant content to display no matter where it finds it. It probably goes into some sort of overdrive mode when presented with something it doesn’t know about. The amount of Facebook Shares wouldn’t even be relevant at that point because at least it found something. The only time Shares would even be something worth considering is if there were competing listings for that term.

    So while this is great insight and a cool experiment, we’re back at square one.

  • saraboargs

    great post, thank you!

    I have check on Google Australia and Rand’s original share is actually showing for web search:,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=119d4aa9065bf24b&biw=1440&bih=742

  • Mamun Rashid

    Thanks for the article Danny. I just did a search on Google for “bussangle nefaribook” and it seems Rand’s Facebook page, the permalink and his wall are all ranking in normal web search

    I used both chrome (incognito mode) and firefox (safemode); the results are identical at the time of searching.

    Obviously, Google index Facebook fan pages, and I’m sure Google index publicly accessible personal Facebook pages, and may be, just may be use links shared on publicly available personal page as a ranking factor. In this test it is difficult to tell since Rand’s test page is a noindex page.

    To this point, I would like to request that Rand performs 2 more tests,

    1. Remove noindex from the test page to see if it outperform other links for the same search term
    2. Change his wall to only friends view for the test period (I’m sure Rand won’t mind doing so for the greater good of SEO)

    Perhaps this will show us some difference in the kind of personal Facebook pages Google index.

  • Dave Fowler

    Looking at the cached version of the Search Engine Land Facebook page just now, Google can see that you have 19,810 likes for the ‘fan page’ as a whole, and that the most recent share – ‘3 Types Of Facebook Image Ads That Work’ – has 10 likes and 8 comments (some by SEL, some by others) over a 10 hour period.

    It’s a simplistic view, but I would not have thought it overly challenging to capture this type of information to ascertain whether a site has a fan page, how many have ‘liked’ it, how active the page is (frequency of shares and uniqueness of those shares), and what levels of engagement shares achieve (comments and likes they attract), etc.

    How you weigh and incorporate those as quality signals is more challenging, of course, but that is surely in development (if not already live)?

    Drilling down, the ratio of comments to likes could also be a clue as to whether sites are incentivising likes through competitions etc, or whether they are more genuinely given.

    This is such a fascinating area, no wonder it’s got us all debating and speculating so actively. As ever, thanks for cutting through so much of the cr*p and keeping our wilder imaginings (quite probably including mine, above) on track.

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