What Everybody Missed About Hummingbird: Social Signals

Danny Sullivan joined me for a live broadcast event via a Hangout on Air (HOA) this past Halloween, and this included a major revelation about Hummingbird and Social signals. Scott Scowcroft has done an awesome job of extracting this part of the broadcast into a short, 5-minute HOA Nugget video (aka “The Scott Treatment”) for me, and you can watch it here:

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To summarize, it appears that Google previously had major technical limitations with regard to the use of social signals as a ranking factor. With Hummingbird, Google now has the infrastructure to better process social signals (among other things).

This might explain why the study I recently shared showed that Google+ share links did not impact ranking – but it may also hint that the day when Google Plus does impact rankings is just around the corner.

One of the great analogies that Danny drew during the HOA was the way voting worked in the early days of the United States. In order to vote, you had to be a white male that owned a substantial amount of property. Not really a democracy at all.

Over time, people of other races, those with less wealth, and women all obtained the right to vote. The country progressed over time to become one where, in principle, every citizen 18 or older has the right to vote.

Will This Democracy Happen With Search?

Simple answer: Yes and No. (Okay, I guess that was not a simple answer.) Let’s look at the landscape in a bit more detail.

Historically, SEO Has Been Driven By Links

This is the equivalent of the rich, white male landowners having the ability to vote and no one else. On the Web, to implement a link, you need to own a website. Even though that is not necessarily a huge investment compared to owning land, it is still some level of investment, and much more so than opening a social media account.

Google Will Use Social Signals As A Ranking Factor In The Future

To re-summarize my opening paragraphs, this suggests two things:

  1. Google is not using social signals now (or not using them extensively)
  2. They certainly intend to use them in the future

We Live In A World Of Spam

That’s just a reality. Some types of votes simply need to be discounted altogether. Related to this is the notion that you can’t vote for yourself. Anything you do that is voting for yourself should simply not count. You don’t get to do that.

The Vote Of A Subject-Matter Expert Should Count For More

If you have someone who is a widely recognized expert on a given topic, and they think someone has created great content for that topic, their opinion should count for more than someone who hasn’t got a clue. The link-based algo has always operated this way. It will also be this way with social signals.

Remember that links were the first form of social proof. It was just a way for people (in this metaphor, the rich, white male landowners) to vote for the best content. In the original Google algorithm, PageRank was an indicator of who the Subject-Matter Experts were, and higher PageRank links counted more than lower PageRank ones did. This also evolved over time, and relevancy became a big factor.

In the world of social media, Subject-Matter Experts can be recognized by the way their relevant content is cited, shared, +1′ed, etc.

Social Votes Require Less Effort & Commitment

While you can view the world in which only website owners get to vote (because only they can implement links) as not being truly democratic, the reality is that “voting” for content using links requires more effort and more commitment than sharing content socially does.

Social Media Signals Lack Commitment

Putting aside crappy sites that have no authority, website publishers have a brand reputation to protect. If they link to a spammy affiliate site, their reputation with their own target audience will suffer. The same is true of a social media presence, but the difference is that a share on a social media site is often gone in minutes, whereas the link on a website is a static object (until removed).

In either scenario, there is a pretty good incentive to not link to really bad crap, but the real issue is the gray area. How much review will you put into qualifying a piece of content before sharing it via social media? If it looks pretty good, but you are running out of time and want to shove it out there, do you ever not spend that extra few minutes checking it out? Does the desire to be one of the first to share it override that last bit of caution? There are many scenarios that can influence caution and diligence.

The point is that there are gray areas, and the lower risk associated with a less-than-stellar share is low. On a website, the brand and reputation risk with a marginal linking decision is higher.

How Will This Shake Out?

I have only my speculation to offer you, but I’ve never been shy about that! I don’t believe it will look like this:

Social Signals and Link Signals Together

As I noted above, the investment people have in voting (sharing, +1s, comments) via social media is simply different than it is when you implement a link on a website. For that reason, they will be used in a somewhat different way. I think a better view of the way it will work is like this:

Social Signals and Link Signals Separately

The point of the two diagrams is that I believe the method of filtering of social signals will be entirely different. I don’t think you will simply add social votes to link votes and be done with it. In all cases, there will be weighting based on the authority of the person/brand/publisher “voting” for content.

One part that is missing from the charts, though, is that the different signals could possibly impact rankings in quite different ways. You could even imagine links affecting ranking in certain types of scenarios, and social signals having no impact in those scenarios, and vice versa.

Summary

Both links and social signals are forms of social proof, but they have different aspects to how they work and what is involved. For that reason, I expect there will be differences in how they are applied by Google. Regardless, building your reputation across many platforms and getting lots of different types of social proof signals is the heart of online marketing these days.

For larger businesses, this operates at a large scale. For smaller businesses, this may focus on a niche market or a local market. Either way, the game is the same. Establish your reputation as a leader within the market space in which you reside. That is ultimately the goal. And, it appears that at long last Google is about to start counting those Google+ signals for something.

Editor’s Note: See also Danny Sullivan’s articles on the “link democracy” versus counting social shares:

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO | Google: +1 | Google: Google+ | Social Media | Social Media Marketing | Top News

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About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • HathawayP

    Nice write-up Eric. I agree completely that the different social signals take different levels of commitment and therefore should/will have varying levels of impact.

    It also implies that if Google are going to take social signals into account, they would have to be applying so called ‘AuthorRank’:

    “In all cases, there will be weighting based on the authority of the person/brand/publisher “voting” for content.”

    Do you think Hummingbird might also have developed their ability to apply AuthorRank?

  • Stephen Kenwright

    Completely agree Eric! I wrote about social signals being used in Hummingbird a few days ago: http://www.branded3.com/blogs/google-going-hummingbird/ – although I think it will be used to determine what particular entities refer to: do you think shares will be a direct ranking factor too?

  • http://seocircle.ca/ SEO Circle

    I think the most important point here is that, authorship is gaining influence, but it still doesn’t have the level of impact that it can. Google is clearly indicating a shift towards a search algorithm that is more influenced by social ranking factors, rather than traditional link building strategies.

    This maybe a simplification of the fact, but what is key is to pay attention to the growth of your “Author Rank” and your social media outreach, in advance of more integration of social influence.

  • Kumar Gandharva

    Hi Eric,

    You pointed it really great with election scenario.. So, does that mean searches results are going to be biased by few strong Influencer; what about google’s results being fare policy and equal marketing opportunity for all.

    We can also notice what you have written to be true in the scenario of brand keyword searches; where earlier it was 2 positions for a sites on a page, now it has been increased to unlimited once. Doesn’t this poses threats to third party service providers who cater services along these top brands.

  • Eric Enge

    I do! Check out this article by Bill Slawski on that topic: http://www.seobythesea.com/2013/11/hummingbird-author-rank-authority/

  • Eric Enge

    I do, but I think it will take time. They still need to figure out how that will work without creating unfair ranking biases.

  • Michael Cottam

    Great article, Eric…and G+ authorship obviously gives Google a leg up in terms of being confidently able to establish the credibility of anyone +1′ing, commenting from a G+ account, or authoring a piece of content themselves. In terms of subject matter experts, though, I’m unconvinced that Google will care whether a person is an expert in a specific area…if you think about it, a mention in the business section of a major newspaper by an important columnist OUGHT to carry a lot of weight in terms of a “vote”, despite the fact that the columnist is unlikely to be an expert in the subject company’s area of business. My guess is that Google is ignoring the subject matter, and simply assuming that if a very trusted author writes about subject X, they’ve probably done their research.

  • Andrew Cilio

    Nice.

    I’d like to add my own bit of speculation to the mix. I believe “first party” or “direct” social sharing will either not carry any ranking weight, or very little. The real juice lies in secondary sharing, ie someone stumbling across your content someone else’s sharing on social media and then sharing it themselves.

    Measuring and ranking this behavior weeds out those brands who are “voting” for themselves by force-feeding a huge social audience they’ve built up over time. Using Facebook/Google+ as a quick example: of course fans/followers of a specific brand/company are going to like something that company/brand is posting–they voluntarily liked them in the first place–but how many of that person’s friends/followers then like that same piece of content?

    I feel the real value is going to be in secondary shares and how branched out your content gets across the web, social media in particular.

  • http://websitecash.net/ Scott McKirahan

    And then, a year or two down the line, these social signals will be discounted because there is absolutely nothing easier to do than set up a massive network of free bogus social accounts. At least with website links, there was actually some cost and trouble involved in setting up websites for people’s link schemes. This has “abuse me” written all over it.

  • JeffersonRFO

    “If you have someone who is a widely recognized expert on a given topic, and they think someone has created great content for that topic, their opinion should count for more than someone who hasn’t got a clue.” If the logic of your analogy was correct, wouldn’t that mean that Republicans should get one-tenth of a vote at the ballot box?

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Wake me when it happens.

  • SEOChemist

    I wrote a post about this earlier in the year. For quite a while now I have predicted that authority is going to have an impact as a backlink signal since it is a legitimate way to remove spam backlinks from the equation. http://www.seochemist.com/blog/authorship-and-the-future-of-backlinking-also-known-as-the-savior-of-seo/

  • Nandini Rathi

    That’s a very insightful & refreshing take Eric. As you have pointed out, even different backlinks from different authority sites didn’t had the same SEO benefits. So, the same could be applicable to social votes.

    But, considering Google Hummingbird update pays more emphasis to in-depth articles by big publishers like (NYTimes), do small publishers or startups stand a chance to show up in top search results just like Mashable or Huff Post does?

  • Nandini Rathi

    That’s a very insightful & refreshing take Eric. As you have pointed out, even different backlinks from different authority sites didn’t had the same SEO benefits. So, the same could be applicable to social votes.

    But, considering Google Hummingbird update pays more emphasis to in-depth articles by big publishers like (NYTimes), do small publishers or startups stand a chance to show up in top search results just like Mashable or Huff Post does?

  • http://www.industryleadersmagazine.com/ John Warne

    Yes Eric i am totally agree with you social signals are the future ranking factor in SEO.

  • http://www.industryleadersmagazine.com/ John Warne

    Yes Eric i am totally agree with you social signals are the future ranking factor in SEO.

  • Eric Enge

    Actually social signals are a lot easier for them to detect spam. Bogus social accounts will get no attention from other legit social accounts, and networks for them are easy to detect too.

  • Eric Enge

    Actually social signals are a lot easier for them to detect spam. Bogus social accounts will get no attention from other legit social accounts, and networks for them are easy to detect too.

  • Eric Enge

    Fair enough! I honestly suspect that the way it happens, when it does happen, will pretty subtle. So it may not really be immediately obvious. Just the way Google would like it.

  • http://www.imigniter.com/ A. Lee Hardin

    Continuing on the historical voter analogy, I think the relationship between social signals and link votes illustrated in your Scenario 2 diagram will be more akin to the way presidential elections are conducted: popular “every citizen” vote (social signals) strongly influence but don’t dictate the electoral collage vote (Links) that actually decide the outcome/ranking, etc. Very interesting read Eric.

  • http://www.imigniter.com/ A. Lee Hardin

    Continuing on the historical voter analogy, I think the relationship between social signals and link votes illustrated in your Scenario 2 diagram will be more akin to the way presidential elections are conducted: popular “every citizen” vote (social signals) strongly influence but don’t dictate the electoral collage vote (Links) that actually decide the outcome/ranking, etc. Very interesting read Eric.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I don’t know if it’s as easy as that, simply because it’s not just about how many Likes or shares you get, but also the authority tied with the people liking and sharing your content. If a spam account shares your post that won’t carry nearly as much weight if a real, trusted figure does.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I don’t know if it’s as easy as that, simply because it’s not just about how many Likes or shares you get, but also the authority tied with the people liking and sharing your content. If a spam account shares your post that won’t carry nearly as much weight if a real, trusted figure does.

  • http://petestean.com/ Pete Stean

    If they’re going to implement this effectively they really need to tackle the amount of spammy accounts that currently exist on Google+.

    In my experience of following these down the rabbit hole there are entire networks of paper-thin personas voting up each other’s content – mostly originating in India at the moment as far as I can tell. A case in the point are the number of stolen photos that get hundreds of +1s from accounts that appear to do little else but upvote questionable content…

    Let’s hope that they have plans in hand to tackle this before they start giving value to these signals.

  • http://websitecash.net/ Scott McKirahan

    You guys keep telling yourselves this if you want. Sure, the occasional “authority” mention will carry a little more weight. Don’t be surprised when you see something open up that is similar to “visit websites for money” where they pay you a nickel per link to mention a company and there will be plenty of suckers out there that’ll be happy to waste hours of their days “liking,” tweeting,” and +1ing things for a couple of bucks an hour.

    Will the search engines be able to detect these at some point? More than likely. But, it’ll never be 100% and eventually they will lose trust in social signals as well. Book it!

    As far as Google+ goes, while it may be true that people in the website industry are using it and people are pretty much forced to sign up for it with a plethora of mobile devices, are that many real people really using it? I know I do, but I have met very few average Joes that do. It’s far too complicated for the everyday man when you compare it to Twitter or Facebook. If Google is going to rely solely on signals from its own social network, their already horrendous search engine results will get far worse.

    The great thing about opinions is we all get to have them! :-)

  • Danny Bennett

    I think you have to look at the bigger picture. As Eric has mentioned it would be fairly easy for Google to detect any fake accounts and essentially give profiles a ranking factor similar to that of PageRank which could be based on the profiles activity, the outbound link history, the friends associated with that profile and their activities, etc.

  • http://www.ferreemoney.com/ Neil Ferree

    An excellent follow on article to another excellent HOA by Eric Enge. The visuals help us right brained guys follow along.

  • http://websitecash.net/ Scott McKirahan

    Well, only time will tell. And, it will only be fairly easy for Google to detect what is going on at Google+ – something most “normal” people don’t use. They may be signing up in droves, but that’s only because they are forced to.

    We’ll see who is right here in the coming years. Don’t be surprised when you see websites built around social signals come crashing down when Zebra (or whatever the Penguin equivalent of it will be called) hits in the year 2015-16-17 …

  • Chase Anderson

    On what basis do you find that Hummingbird is connected to social. I just don’t understand how you bridged that gap. They don’t have Facebook data, they don’t have twitter data and G+ is a bad representative demographic.

    As for comments. Perhaps, but comments are not always in an easily identifiable format. They’d probably need a comment schema system to be implemented on a widespread scale, and that’s not something they’ll be able to accomplish overnight, if at all.

  • http://www.ubermarketing.co.uk/ Shell Robshaw-Bryan

    Brilliant article and some interesting thoughts. I think a heavier weighting for social signals seems logical, though in terms of SEO I almost feel like my own efforts are in limbo as we think we know what Hummingbird wants, but no one knows for sure right now.

    One thing I am certain of, and have been since it’s inception nearly 2 and half years ago, is that Google+ and now Authorship are a big deal that simply can’t be ignored. Thanks again Eric, a really good read.

  • Eric Enge

    The basis is statements made by Google to Danny Sullivan when they were telling him about Hummingbird. Given that Google has long denied any influence, their indicating that Hummingbird enables this to happen (as some point in the future), that is a pretty significant change.

  • Johan Hedin

    Google is worried that the social signals can be gamed so they are better off saying they dont count it to send the signals to the webmasters do not use it for SEO purposes. We are all smart enough to know that what google says is not always what works. I have tested this before to be true. Ex: no follow links, still works to some degree in rankings I know for sure…So keep doing social media using google plus and build your authority and it will come well for the next few updates…

  • Chase Anderson

    I see. I’ve probably missed some reading but what part of Google or Danny’s notes about Hummingbird indicate any type of inclusion of social data. I didn’t find anything in my previous reading, and with a quick rescan I’m still not finding any way to connect hummingbird to social data.

  • Chase Anderson

    I wanted to add a bit more here as well. And thank you for your reply. I just wonder if we’re jumping off using a solid hypothesis to develop these ideas. If we’re talking about purely speculative and what if scenarios I get that, and to some extent I think that is what you and Danny are doing.

    The problem though, is that we start making claims around every algorithm (as an industry) that makes the conversations about what they really are and what they do go to the wayside.

    It’s all well and good to have a discussion about how social signals could be a better metric to incorporate into SERPs but it’s harmful, I think, to connect that discussion to hummingbird without a key mention of that type of data incorporation from Google or without some case study or test data to work from.

  • http://www.danikelly.com/ Danielle Kelly

    Enjoyed your article Eric. Sorry if my question isn’t relevant to your post but I see a punch of people with a high amount of followers some over 100k but when they post anything there is 10 likes and maybe 5 comments but then someone with 500 followers gets 70 likes and 20 comments. If both are “authorities” on say Apple Pie making does or do you think G will give a lower quality score to the person with a higher amount of followers and less engagement even though in G’s model you really have no control over who follows you and why?

    I hope this makes sense. I have no horse in this race personally I just find it pretty interesting and actually enjoy G over FB or some of the other sites I use.

  • Iblis Bane

    I just stumbled on this article while doing a little light research. (Great article by the way.) So far, everything I’ve seen assumes that it will very literally be quality (engagement) over quantity (followers).

  • Romany Thresher

    Eric I have a question, with regards to what you said, that the vote will be based on the weight of the vote based on the authority of the person/brand/publisher “voting” for content. Which makes sense but just to clarify,

    How does this work then for those who are your customers, suppliers, visitors and people in general who cast their vote. From my understanding of what you are saying is that either this will not be a factor because “what do they know about your subject matter” (then I question democracy) or that this will count but just not as much as having votes from specialists in their field?

    I’m curious to know how this impacts the small business arena especially in countries where you find many experts in their fields but have only started to embrace the concept of writing articles. How do these guys stand out then and compete with bigger entities with bigger resources if say they don’t get the votes by their influencers even if they do write good content?

    For example, the way that I’ve been working with my clients is to show them how to build strong networks around them in their businesses based on who their most likely customers are and encourage them to build those relationships and then also to align themselves with potential opportunities. The focus is not really based on “let’s hunt for our influencers” so much but rather how do we connect with the people who we serve best and who serve us best.

 

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