A hotly debated topic in 2014 is whether or not social signals influence website search rankings directly. And if they do have influence, how is it manifested? Some experiments have yielded pretty compelling results, and influential practitioners have performed their own analyses on leading social networks. The answer to this question is more ambiguous than you’d expect, and it can change depending on which social network you’re referring to.
We’ll get to the information on the other social networks in a moment, but first let’s take a look at the one over which Google has the most influence and data. It’s no secret that Google Plus is the foundation for a lot of things the search pioneer is doing with its other services and initiatives, as well as its core competency (search).
The thing that isn’t so clear is the role that activity on the company’s social network plays in the results it displays to its users in SERPs. We see videos from Google claiming that social signals have no direct influence, yet when I search for generic terms, posts from people in my network begin showing up in SERPs, as evidenced in the screenshot below.
Of course, Google Plus posts will show up in search if they are public, anyway. That being said, would those same posts rank as well if someone not connected to me or others in the screenshot searched for them using Google?
So, just because you are active on Google Plus and sharing content doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to receive more traffic from search. The phenomenon mentioned above only works if people are connected to you. It is to suggest, though, that growing your network on Google Plus (especially with people in your target audience) would be a wise way to spend your web-marketing resources.
Google Plus is unique in the way it influences search, and that behavior isn’t really seen in regards to the other major social networks. One reason is because the pages of other social networks are excluded from SERPs. For instance, Facebook’s timeline will never show up in search for related queries. All you will ever see is limited information on someone’s profile. Twitter posts, however, do show up in search.When you look at the available information on how activity from Facebook, Twitter and other networks influences search, you notice a running thread indicating correlation, but not causation. In other words, content that happens to get a lot of social signals (i.e. likes, shares, comments, etc) also happens to get linked to a lot.
The most recent webmaster video on this topic from Google features Matt Cutts talking about social signals and their role in ranking web pages. For the most part, Cutts seems to talk about the same theme described above, where there is a correlation among social signals, good content and high rankings in search, but not a clear cause.
One thing is also quite obvious: Google has not yet determined a viable way to use social signals in its core algorithm, but it has not discounted using signals altogether. At some point down the road (and Cutts alludes to this in the video), Google will begin to incorporate these signals into its consideration when ranking websites.
Knowing that to be true, it might be wise to start gathering social signals for content now so that when they do become a factor, you’re well ahead of the game.