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The Search Engine and Social Media Relationship

By Brian Bluff

Convention SpeakerBRIt’s a comfort for the modern business – and an occasional annoyance – that anyone and everyone can find you online. Search is the biggest part of online discovery, but more and more often people find information and content through social channels: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so on. Whereas search results offer static information like research and prices, social media can spread timely news and viral articles. The two channels are obviously related, but are they connected?

If you think about it, they should be. Google’s stated mission is to organize the world’s information and make this information universally accessible and useful. To accomplish this monumental task, Google monitors traffic, links, text and other signals to evaluate how informative a webpage, video, image or other online content is. All these related signals help Google make sense of the mass of information on the web.

Now, assuming that the search engine is true to its mission, as of late there’s a whole bunch of social media information created every day. Google, therefore, should be organizing it and using it to shape its web results.

This paper will examine the relationship between Google search and social media, which is contained in MHEDA Critical Impact Factor 11:

Members need to be better educated on the benefits of digital marketing in particular, the correlation between social media and search engine ranking.

As a distributor or manufacturer of Widget X, you want to rank well when someone searches for “Widget X”. Does a popular Facebook post about your prowess at creating Widget X factor into search rankings? What about a many-favorited Tweet? Or a link to your white paper from LinkedIn? At various times throughout the last half-decade of Google search, the answers to these questions have differed.

2010 – Social Signals Are Important
At the end of 2010, Matt Cutts, the head of search quality at Google, responded to some ideas about social media influencing search results. The topic was confusing even then. Cutts said a few months prior, social had no effect on search but that now (at the end of 2010), Google would start using social for its real time search results (like showing Twitter posts in searches).

Interestingly, Cutts said, Google would also factor social media signals into its regular ranking algorithm. This wasn’t a call for businesses to buy followers on Twitter, but Cutts was open to the possibility of using social media information to influence search results. And if you think about it, this makes obvious sense. A link from a hugely popular person or company should be important – whether it’s on a webpage or a social media post.

This brief remark touched off a huge shift in the way digital marketers looked at SEO, for better and worse. Back in 2010, SEO strategies like link building and on page optimization were tried and true while social media was seen as more ancillary and possibly unnecessary. All of a sudden, any SEO strategy that didn’t include generating positive social media signals would be incomplete.

2014 – Social Not A Direct Influencer of Search
Bluff SEOHowever, just a few years later, things had totally changed on this front. Cutts spoke definitively at the beginning of 2014 about the issue: Google search still looks at and indexes social media posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter – you still find Tweets and Facebook posts by searching on Google – but when ranking content, they don’t factor other information such as Facebook Likes, Twitter Favorites, the relationships between followers, and so on.

The reasons Cutts gave for this stance make sense. Social media posts generally have a URL and contain information, so they’re just like any other webpage to be indexed. On the other hand, their signals like relationships and follower status often change, and Google can only capture a snapshot of any relationship for a moment in time. Relying on this data would mean Google would build its search results on shifting sands, making them potentially inaccurate.

For technical reasons, as well, Google has a difficult time extracting signals from social media. An unstated, but inferable, cause of Google’s seeming lack off interest in social signals is its own social network platform, Google+, which did not exist in 2010. Ideally, it shouldn’t have to rely on Facebook data when Google+ data are right there.

Conclusions: Search-Social Relationship
As Google’s stance on social signals is fluid – and is not even “official” in the way a federal law or precept of physics is – it makes sense to do some more thinking about how Google search and social signals relate.

We know that social media posts are indexed by Google like any webpage. That means links from social posts function like links from any webpage. While social network links are “no follow” (Google’s term for a link that doesn’t confer any ranking significance), they’re still links. These links can generate leads, prompt “do follow” links (the opposite of the above), and send traffic to your website.
Social media profiles (rather than posts and such) tend to be indexed and are quite visible in Google search results. Your Google+ profile (or Wikipedia page, map result, and so on) can also appear in Knowledge Graph box on the right side of search results.

Your presence on social media may not overly affect Google search results, but social networks are now search engines, themselves. Twitter has indexed every public tweet since 2006 (over half a trillion) and handles 1 to 2 billion searches per day. As of 2012, Facebook handled over a billion searches per day, as well. There are about 3.3 billion Google searches per day. Social media search is not insignificant and effort at social media should not be eschewed for straight search engine optimization.

This, finally, seems to be the best way to understand the relation between social media and search engine ranking: they are not causally related, but they are complimentary and often correlated. Pages that rank well tend to have strong social media cues: brands and companies with many followers, posts with lots of Likes and Favorites, and so on.

As mentioned above, there is value in social media links even if they don’t directly affect search engine rankings. Social media posts can also increase your brand or product awareness. More awareness means more searches, which does affect search engine rankings. Increasing your presence on a search results page – both more pieces of your site’s content and its social media profiles – can also help bring more clickthroughs and more traffic to your site.

Hopefully this paper has shown that search engine rankings and social media are correlated, even if they’re not currently causally linked. Improving your social media presence will help improve your overall web presence. And being well situated on social media keeps your options open for any future in which Google does use social media signals to affect its search rankings.

My brother Eddie and I will present more about the relationship between search and social at the convention. It’s a fast moving fascinating subject and one that will impact all of our businesses moving forward. We hope to see you there.