What Social Signals Do Google & Bing Really Count?

Both Google and Bing have added many social search features over the past year. There’s also been talk about using “social signals” to help rank regular search results. But are either of the major search engines actually using those social signals to rank regular search results? A bit, they tell me. In particular, your stature on Twitter could help influence how a page ranks in web search.

I gave Bing and Google six questions about how they use social data from Twitter and Facebook. In particular, I wanted to know how that data influenced regular web search results, not the impact it has on the dedicated social search tools they have.

Social Search Ranking…

For example, both Google and Bing offer a way to see results that are written by or shared by your friends, search that’s directly influenced by people you know:

Both Google and Bing also offer a way to see content being shared in real time on the social networks:

The links above take you to our past coverage of these dedicated social search services, explaining how they gather content from social networks and leverage social signals from those networks to help decide what should rank well.

…Isn’t Web Search Ranking

What happens within those social search tools is completely different from what happens when you do an ordinary web search, where Google and Bing try to decide which pages to rank tops from the billions they have indexed from across the web.

For example, Google uses more than 200 different “signals” to decide how rank those pages, in response to any search. Some of these signals are well-known, such as:

  • PageRank, how authoritative a page is deemed to be
  • Anchor text pointing at a page
  • HTML title tag, and whether the words you searched for appear within it

There are many other factors beyond those I’ve listed. Bing also uses a complex recipe — or algorithm — of signals to determine rankings.

What’s not clear is whether social signals have been included in this mix. For example, both search engines have ways to determine if someone seems to be an “authority” or a trusted figure on Twitter, which they use within their social search features. But for web search, if that person tweets a URL, does the URL get a boost because a human authority pointed people at it?

Web Page Authority Vs. Human Authority

That’s how it works when it comes to web pages. Some pages are deemed more trustworthy than others. If those pages link to other pages, then what they point at gains reputation in Google and Bing’s ranking systems.

To some degree, “humans” on the web have pages that already represent their authority. For example, my Twitter page has a Google PageRank score of 7 out of 10, which is an above average degree of authority in Google’s link counting world. Things I link to from that page — via my tweets — potentially get more credit than things someone whose Twitter page has a lower PageRank score.

(NOTE: PageRank scores for Twitter pages are much different if you’re logged in and may show higher scores. This seems to be a result of the new Twitter interface that has been introduced. I’ll be checking with Google and Twitter more about this, but I’d trust the “logged out” scores more).

PageRank, Meet SocialRank?

Time for some “Buts.” Twitter also uses what’s called a “nofollow” tag that prevents links that are tweeted from getting credit. Hang on to that thought.

The bigger “But” is that even though my page has a PageRank score, it might still be useful for Google (or Bing) to give me something like a “SocialRank” or “HumanRank” or “AuthorRank” score independent of that. This would be a way for them to know how much authority that people — rather than pages representing people — have on social networks, and to let those people have a signal that influences rankings.

Who You Are On Twitter Counts

Enough with the background. Are they doing it? Yes, at least for Twitter. Both Google and Bing tell me that who you are as a person on Twitter can impact how well a page does in regular web search. Authoritative people on Twitter lend their authority to pages they tweet.

When it comes to Facebook, Bing says it doesn’t try to calculate someone’s authority. Google says it does, in some limited cases. However, I’m double-checking on this, as I think that might not be correct.

No Nofollow For The Twitter Firehose

Remember that whole “nofollow” thing I mentioned earlier? This is a way for anyone to tag a link and effectively say to search engines, “Don’t count this link as a vote.”

Nofollow is commonly used across the web in places where services can’t vouch for the links that might be posted on them. Wikipedia uses it, because it has so many volunteer editors that it can’t trust them all. Many blog commenting systems use it. At Twitter, links it publishes on the web are tagged with nofollow.

So, while Bing and Google do have a human signal they can assess from Twitter, supposedly they have no link signal that they can also count. But as it turns out, both of them get what’s called the “firehose” of data from Twitter. This is a constant stream of what people are tweeting.

In that firehose, links do not carry nofollow attributes — so there is some link credit that counts, in some cases. Bing tells me:

We take into consideration how often a link has been tweeted or retweeted, as well as the authority of the Twitter users that shared the link.

Google tells me:

We use the data only in limited situations, not for all of general websearch.

Questions & Responses

Below are the questions I sent over to both services to compile this story, along with their responses. Bing’s are paraphrased from a phone interview I had with them; Google’s are from the email replies I received.

1) If an article is retweeted or referenced much in Twitter, do you count that as a signal outside of finding any non-nofollowed links that may naturally result from it?

Bing:

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:

Yes, we do use it as a signal. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article [NOTE: see the end of this article for more about that].

2) Do you try to calculate the authority of someone who tweets that might be assigned to their Twitter page. Do you try to “know,” if you will, who they are?

Bing:

Yes. We do calculate the authority of someone who tweets. For known public figures or publishers, we do associate them with who they are. (For example, query for Danny Sullivan)

Google:

Yes we do compute and use author quality. We don’t know who anyone is in real life :-)

3) Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who tweets it?

Bing:

Yes.

Google:

Yes we do use this as a signal, especially in the “Top links” section [of Google Realtime Search]. Author authority is independent of PageRank, but it is currently only used in limited situations in ordinary web search.

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

Bing:

Yes. We look at links shared that are marked as “Everyone,” and links shared from Facebook fan pages.

Google:

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

5) Do you try to calculate the authority of someone on Facebook, either say via their personal wall or their fan page.

Bing:

We don’t do this on Facebook. On Facebook, we only get what’s public, only updates and things you’ve posted to everyone as viewable. We don’t get things only shared with friends, so we don’t know how authoritative you are on Facebook. There isn’t the whole convenient retweet mechanism we see on Twitter.
We do see valuable content shared by Facebook users, even though we only get what’s public.  For example when Gary Coleman died we saw a  video from Different Strokes, saying his favorite line “what ya talk’in ’bout Willis” gain popularity.  It happened to be what a lot of people are sharing on the day he passed away.

Google:

Again, the treatment is the same as for Twitter. And we have no personal wall data from Facebook.

6) Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who shared it on Facebook?

Bing:

We can tell if something is of quality on Facbook by leveraging Twitter. If the same link is shared in both places, it’s more likely to be legitimate.

Google:

Same as question 5.

7) And just to be really clear, the new Facebook data is not yet being used in ordinary web search, right? (asked only of Bing, because it was only relevant to them)

No.

Social Data For Display Use Vs. Rankings

That last question leads me to an issue about using social data for display purposes, rather than ranking purposes. It’s another important distinction to note.

In The Wake Of Bing & Facebook, Google Web Search Tests Getting More Social covers how Google is showing “Shared By” figures next to news stories. This shows how many people on Twitter are tweeting about a particular news item.

The news stories aren’t being ranked according to the number of shares. It’s simply additional information being displayed, more on an FYI basis than anything else.

Similarly, Bing has said in the near future, results it lists will also show the number of “Facebook Likes” next to them, in some situations. Again, this is simply a display usage, an FYI for the searcher. The results themselves haven’t been ranked by number of likes, nor is that part of the overall ranking signals.

Yet. Stay tuned, because over time, it is likely that social signals will gain more weight in search ranking systems, I’d suspect.

TwitterRank & Retweets As The New Link Building

In the end, it’s clear that Twitter data especially plays a role in web search, these days. Who you are is being understood. Are you a trusted authority or not? If there’s PageRank for pages, both search engines have a form of TwitterRank for people.

Meanwhile, retweets serve as a new form a link building. Get your page mentioned in tweets by authoritative people, and that can help your ranking in regular search results, to a degree.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Facebook | Features: Analysis | Google: Real Time Search | Google: SEO | Google: Social Search | Microsoft: Bing SEO | Microsoft: Bing Social Search | Top News | Topsy

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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.

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



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  • http://jozsoft.com Joe Hall

    Danny, great write up! One question that comes to mind though is, if Google is looking at authoritative users on Twitter as ranking signals, how do they define authority? Is it follower counts? Follower/following ratio? RT counts? Or is it something more old school like the profile pages PagRank?

    And if it is based on friend/follow metric, how are they retrieving that data? Is it done when the initial link is crawled via the web? Or are they scraping the fire hose for link data.

    I find all of this to be very interesting because it seems that this is the first time that a search engine has relied on someone elses data as a ranking signal.

  • http://www.planetc1.com/ chiropractic

    “Authoritative people on Twitter lend their authority to pages they tweet.” Wow, wow, wow! TwitterRank suspected but great to see it confirmed. Also the importance of RTs from those with authority. I would imagine having an increase in authoritative followers on ones profile would be similar to internal link building, correct?

  • http://searchenginewatch.com/3624891 Chris Boggs

    awesome! thanks Danny for asking them these questions. Many others reading this probably also felt this was possibly going to be the case, especially those with access to numerous WebmasterTools accounts seeing the dozens of Twitter and FB links showing up in the reports.

    I agree with Joe – how can we really define authority? followers alone are too easy to manipulate. I was thinking number of Lists appearing within, as well as number of “high tweet-rank” people following the profile. great stuff Danny as always!

  • http://www.blogpestcontrol.com Thomas Ballantyne

    Thanks @dannysullivan . And now everyone wants to quantify what a tweet link is really worth! Who wants to start swapping tweet links? … and the spamming begins. =)

  • http://www.topsy.com esmitksy

    Danny, great to see some disclosure on what’s done and not done by Bing and Google regarding incorporation of social signals. Regarding the question of defining authority, Topsy calculates influence based upon the propensity of an individual to cause others to take action within the social Web. Within Twitter, this is calculated using actions such as retweets, replies & is recursive, so the thread of actions is used beyond just one layer. This means that even if you have a million followers but you’re not causing others to take action on your posts your influence score will be very low. This method also removes spam and noisy content that’s probably not relevant to consumers.
    Topsy calculates influence scores down to the keyword level and uses influence along with relevance match to the search term to rank results, framing them within the timeframe for which that keyword query has a spike in activity.
    For example a search for “social signals” in topsy frames results over the past day because there’s been a spike in posts from this article and ranks results according to influencers & relevance. Check it out http://topsy.com/s?q=social+signals

  • http://www.blogpestcontrol.com Thomas Ballantyne

    @Chris, Followers, RTs, can be manipulated. Seems that it would be similar to a PR score. Analysis who is following RT, how many unique follows, RTs and mentions, and the authority/PR of those connections. You could break it down to a more granular level of original content as well. Throw in a ratio of tweets to RTs, Received mentions to out going mentions. No system will be perfect.

    Quantifying that sure does take the fun out of social.

  • http://www.jacksonlo.com jacksonlo

    Great article write up Danny! Similar to the previous comments, I’m curious to know how they are defining the term ‘authority’. Based on follows/followers? Do they take in consideration of Klout scores, which analyzes a person’s influence on others?

    I also think it would be very easy for someone to create multiple social accounts, like on Twitter, and tweet a link out on multiple accounts, all getting relatively high juice. Do you think that would need more paying attention to?

  • http://daggle.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Joe Hall & Jacksonlo, it’s a combination of things. Google explained some of these when real time search first launched:

    http://searchengineland.com/google-launches-real-time-search-31355

    Since then, both Google and Bing have repeatedly said that in their social/real time products, they look to determine the authority of people based on things like how often they are retweeted and by whom, as well as your overall profile.

    It’s not just having a huge number of followers but important followers, and it’s not just about having a lot of retweets but retweets from people with some authority.

    In other words, create a Twitter account, create 100 more fake accounts that follow it, and that probably won’t boost the authority of that account much — just like having 100 fake accounts retweeting from your main account probably won’t count much. It won’t seem real — it’ll be too much like fake link networks in the “real” world.

    Chiropratic: Yes, I’d agree. I kind of ran out of steam at the end to go into strategy tips from this. But among them:

    + Increase follows to your Twitter account from authorities, which you might do by following them or better, by engaging with them with interesting information, to entice them to follow you. Be interesting. Be helpful. But for goodness sakes, don’t do the Twitter equivalent of a bad link request. “Please follow me” as a reply to someone probably will come across as badly as a “Please link to me” email.

    + Tweet interesting things, and build your account up into a place where people might want to follow and retweet what you put out.

    + Be valued: In the end, treat your Twitter account like you would your web site. With web sites, success with search often comes from having good content, providing value – Twitter can be the same way.

  • http://www.whatthetrend.com Liz Pullen

    It’s frustrating reading your questions and their answers because you dance around the issue. Yet, you conclude that they have a “TwitterRank” for individuals, sort of a reputation score. I wish you had just asked this flat out.

    Because I’m not sure that this is true. Bing & Google say search results are “influenced” by who Tweets a message or link, but they didn’t say they actually ranked people or connected individuals with their Twitter profile webpage (which I guess do have a PageRank). That’s what you deduced was happening from their vague responses but I wish you had just asked them this, point blank, to get a “yes” or “no” so this could be confirmed.

  • http://www.Web-Savvy-Marketing.com Web Savvy Marketing

    Thank you thank you thank you! While there are not a lot of definitive answers, the questions and responses speak volumes. Twitter and Facebook do matter.

    I am in a constant battle with new small business clients in regards to Twitter and Facebook. So many think these two social networks have nothing to do with SEO and I always argue that they do make a difference in both ranking and traffic.

  • Natasha

    In light of recent articles concerning businesses utilising negative reviews to climb the search results ladder- do you think search engines have (or are developing) any methods to filter out negative tweets/social media responses?

    If I wrote a blog about a terrible online shopping website which included a link to the culprit then I could simply use nofollow.

    But what if I was to instead tweet about my bad experience with aforementioned online shopping website with a link, unaware that I may be helping that business rank higher and gain more customers.

  • http://daggle.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Liz, when I asked something like this:

    “Do you try to calculate the authority of someone who tweets that might be assigned to their Twitter page. Do you try to “know,” if you will, who they are?”

    That’s me asking if the have a TwitterRank for individuals. To know an individual on Twitter, they have to look at something. The Twitter page represents that person. I suppose I could have said it better — do you have a TwitterRank for accounts on Twitter.

    I was kind of at pains in this story, I thought, to separate out the idea that the page has a PageRank that can transmit authority from the links versus the person tweeting having authority.

    They also did say this. Go back and look at the answers to question 2. Bing says they calculate the authority of someone who tweets. Google says the same. Then both say that links carry more weight based on the authority of people who tweet. Google specifically says “author authority is independent of PageRank.”

    Finally, I sent the entire article to both Google and Bing before I published. I didn’t just write it off the answers I was given. I sent all my conclusions back, so they could review and clarify if I had something wrong. There were a few small changes that I incorporated. After it went live today, I also emailed both to review and send me further comments, if I didn’t have something correct.

    So the conclusions I’m giving you are based on what the search engines have told me and reviewed.

    Natasha, Google said today that it is not using sentiment analysis in search results. See http://searchengineland.com/google-now-using-online-merchant-reviews-as-ranking-signal-57445

  • http://www.wirestone.com kgamache

    Danny,
    Thank you for spelling this out in an easy to understand way. I think we have all been making guesses at how Bing and Google have been using the social influence sphere to impact their algorithms but this steps us further toward the “known” direction than the “unknown”.
    I think what we will have watch is how this ranks in authority amongst the 200 (or 2000) other factors that go into the algorithm. Will this be a passing phase that is easily gamed or will this progress into a long standing direction of how the information we search for is organized? We are definitely moving that direction but is it a pendulum swing or a released projectile gaining in speed. Time will tell, but thank you for the snapshot!

  • http://www.speedsynch.com Nick Trendov

    Googles attempt to define ‘social signal’ has an extremely high failure risk in my opinion for two simple reasons though plenty of people will believe the promise that more ‘friends and likes’ makes it more valueable than Twitter’s Resonance, it is not.

    Google’s Social Signal Failure Risk #1
    Googles attempt to define social signal has a core premise that social signal supports their SEO business model and that the underlying content on the internet supported by backlinks is sound. This is simply not true as spam rules and you can validate this yourself by asking any brand owner where they rank in a search for their brand. Wikipedia, Amazon and ‘search guru’s’ all work very hard to stand between them and their future customers to extract a toll for letting buyers find their brands.

    Twitter has a much better, cooller and efficient way of understanding ‘social signals’ and value with their simple notion of Resonance that I’ve described on my blogs but is simply like someone tossing a Rubrik cube up in the air and steps back waiting for it to fall. Another person beside them sees a colour pattern that ‘resonates’ or resembles a question or answer important for them NOW and they catch the cube and think about it or spin it around.

    Three things generally happen next., the story on the cube is not what the second person though and they drop the cube to the ground where others can’t see it or they toss the cube into the air either the same way they received it from the other person as a Re-Tweet or toss it up into the air in the form that they find useful and possibly refererence the original Tweeter or not. No spam, no confusion.

    Google’s Social Signal Failure Risk #2
    Let’s assume that Google embraces Twitter’s notion of influential Tweeters and includes their view as a small part of the ‘secret sauce’ or algorithm which determines the web site content offered as part of a response to keywords entered by people looking for answers in their search engine.

    This idea is like taking a glass full of dirty water (spam filled search engine results) and adding some very clean water from a Canadian glacier (Twitter results) and then mixing both and drinking it all up. Not very appetizing or practical.

    I would suggest that corporate marketers and the advertisers that serve them devote a little time to understanding the notion of Resonance which Twitter explains or see examples of SpeedSynch Resonance maps on Twitter @SpeedSynch to understand the difference.

    Good luck with promoting Google’s notion, I hope somebody buys it.

  • http://sebastians-pamphlets.com/ SebastianX

    I’d assume that the PageRank of a Twitter profile is a minor factor when it comes to ranking a Twitter account’s weight / authority. If PageRank plays a role at all.

    Also, I think that meanwhile Google completely ignores outbound link signals gathered from crawling twitter.com. It makes no sense, because they got these data way earlier via Firehose.

    Bing and Google are using something totally different to calculate scores for Twitter users. I bet parsing markup is not a part of the algo. Topsy’s page on influence might provide a first idea: http://corp.topsy.com/about/influence/

  • http://referral-secrets.webs.com vikaz

    Another thing backlinks are so important to index your site in search engines

  • http://www.ianlockwood.net IanLockwood

    So when links are Tweeted, as the vast majority use URL shorteners, I presume that both search engines are happy to follow these to the actual URL? Would it make any difference if you used a shortener that didn’t 301 to the actual URL?

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/jbledsoejr Jackie Bledsoe, Jr.

    Great post! a lot to take in, but it looks like it will provide a decide guide on utilizing FB & Twitter to improve our search engine rankings

  • patrick berry

    Over at Webmasterworld there is an internesting conversation on this subject:

    http://www.webmasterworld.com/opengoogle/4222156.htm

  • http://mediafunnel.com Steve Chipman

    Danny – was there anything to suggest that the search engines use the Twitter profile Web field to correlate the profile’s authority with a site? Or it it exclusively based on inline URLs? The profile Web field would seem to be a logical and well defined touch point.

    There would also be legitimate, additive authority as in the case when several company principals and or employees have the corporate URL in their profile’s Web field.

  • Brian Robinson

    Hi Danny. Great article. I think what you’re seeing with the different Toolbar PageRanks (TBPR) when logged in vs. logged out is that when you’re logged out you’re seeing the TBPR of the Twitter homepage which is 9 because Twitter adds “#!/” in the URL between “twitter.com/” and “dannysullivan” when you’re logged out and I think Google ignores everything after hash marks (“#”) in URLs since they’re normally just URL fragments or anchors on the same page. You can verify this by viewing Google’s cache of the logged out page and you’ll see that the TBPR is actually that of Twitter’s homepage. When you’re logged in, the URL doesn’t have the hash mark so the toolbar fetches the actual PR of the user’s Twitter homepage which, in your case, is 7.

  • Brian Robinson

    Oops, I think I got it backwards. It’s when you’re logged in that Twitter adds the “#!/” and, therefore, the toolbar shows the PR of Twitter’s homepage.

  • Marketmesuite

    Hi! Great article – this is part of the reason using a tool like MarketMeSuite is so valuable – with the backlink on the tweets you get all that extra SEO juice and brand recognition :)

  • Erik

    Social Networking is being tracked and backlinked like never before for regular users and businesses. Social Scoring with sites like socialscorebureau.com and klout.com is something that is changing this element as well as Google and others paying attention to the quality of the post. 

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