The thumbprint of social media on search engine optimization is evolving. It used to be that the big rage was figuring out how to develop link bait that had a strong chance of making the front page of Digg, Reddit, or other similar social news sites. The results were good, mostly in terms of getting a volume of links to a page on your site.
This is still a great tactic, but social media can do so much more today. For example, with Twitter or Facebook it is possible to use networking and information sharing techniques to build high quality links. I have seen sites from a number of different spaces use Twitter effectively as a PR outreach mechanism.
This new type of PR has become a new technique for link building and promotion. However, fast forwarding from today, there is the widely held belief in the SEO community that social media will be a major source of ranking signals for the search engines in the future.
There are certainly a lot of reasons why this would make sense. Today’s link based algorithms are well understood by the community at large, and this has led to a battle between spammers trying to game the algorithm and the spam fighting teams of the search engines.
One way to combat this would be to start introducing social media signals as a ranking factor. This would allow the engines to leverage the wisdom of the crowds. Mike Grehan provides some excellent thought on this topic in his whitepaper titled New Signals to Search Engines: Future Proofing Your Search Marketing Strategy. He summarizes the situation as follows:
“Signals from end users who previously couldn’t vote for content via links from web pages are now able to vote for content with their clicks, bookmarks, tags and ratings. These are very strong signals to search engines, and best of all, they don’t rely on the elitism of one web site owner linking to another or the often mediocre crawl of a dumb bot”.
Personally, I don’t think that social media signals will replace links as a ranking signal, but will instead complement them. Think of it this way: a link from a highly trusted web site will still be a highly valuable thing. Similarly, a host of mentions across a range of social media sites, particularly if they are primarily positive or negative, will also be a strong signal. The signals have some unique aspects to them too.
For example, one thing that could take place is the release of a new movie (“Movie A”). If it is really popular it could suddenly get discussed and referenced thousands or tens of thousands of times very quickly. This could be a flag that search engines could use to see what the best response to a query like “new movie” should be. Three months later the raging discussions about movies may well have moved onto another movie, and Movie A would no longer be a good response to this query.
User reviews already play a key role in local search, as does the broader concept of web references (which are references to a web site or a business that may not actually be a link). Or go to the web’s number two search engine, YouTube, where user views and ratings are a key factor in rankings. And well they should be, because the old fashioned crawler method of performing keyword analysis is difficult to do with video.
One of the nice components of social media based signals is that they are self policing. Launch a spam campaign and you will get outed (just ask John Mackey, the Whole Foods CEO). There will remain the problem of unpoliced forums and social sites where spammers can potentially have a field day, but the search engines should be able to filter these out using trust based algorithms as well.
What it means for SEO
The depth and breadth of tactics and skills required to succeed in an SEO project is increasing. A brilliant link building tactic that isn’t really based on quality content will likely receive some level of negative backlash, and that backlash will act as a counter-balancing force. Basically, there will be a lot more data for search engines to use, and this is good news for them—all the while increasing the challenge for SEOs.
In addition, companies that understand how to use social media services as part of a broader PR strategy will get an early first mover advantage over their competition. This can bring some immediate benefits in terms of market exposure now, and it will bring the significant advantage of improved search engine rankings in the future.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.