Social media for SEO has been a hot topic of discussion and analysis for a number of years – and with good reason. Social media and SEO are cornerstones of digital marketing but they are far from mutually exclusive. We know that social media has an impact on a company’s search engine ranking but the extent and the method of this impact is somewhat speculative and subject to debate.
Why has social media for SEO become so important? Why don’t we know everything there is to know about the effect of social media on SEO? What do we actually know about it?
Well, here’s the most common misconception:
Most people think search engines rank websites in their results. The fact is they do not rank websites; they rank pages. So the confusion around social media for SEO might originate from confusion surrounding SEO itself. The fact that pages rank has important implications for the role social media plays, which we will come to explore later. Another misconception is that Google and other search engines have a constant algorithm governing the whole internet which means we should be able to work out exactly how social media affects SEO. They don’t so we don’t!
Social media for SEO: what we know
We’re not ones to simply settle for “social media must have a positive impact on SEO” – instead we want to know if it actually does, and, if so, how. Knowing this and how it fits in with your digital marketing goals will shape your social media strategy. But the answers are not simple. Social media represents an incredibly complex web of interconnected content and linkage and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of variables to account for.
We know that gaining social actions such as shares and likes are important because they signal to search engines that the content is good quality, but their actual influence on SEO has been measured as very small. What is unsurprising is that there is a VERY strong correlation between high ranking pages and the number of times they have been shared on social media (see image – social seems to account for 7 of the top 11 variables correlating with page rank).
But don’t make this mistake:
There is a causality issue here: pages are not ranking highly because they are shared often; they are shared so often because they rank highly and receive a lot of attention. In terms of the correlation data, there is potentially so much omitted variable bias and autocorrelation issues that we would really have to delve deep into the statistics of it all – which we don’t need to do for now. Phew!
[If you do want to learn more about technical elements of SEO check out the Moz.com blog.]
With all this confusing data, how does social media benefit performance in the search engines? Well, this is the interesting bit. Social media plays a roll in what we know as ‘holistic’ SEO but it’s not as wooly as it sounds!
SEO is a real science. We know it’s a science because every search engine uses a complex algorithm to asses which pages are most relevant to the user, based on what they’ve searched, where they’re based and their search history amongst other interests. This leads marketers to do two things:
- Working out exactly which factors are contained in that algorithm
- Working out the weighting or effect of each variable in that algorithm
But here’s the problem with that:
If we’re pretty certain that a variable is not contained within that algorithm, we tend to discount it completely. For example, going to speak at a conference is, in itself, not going improve your site’s Google ranking – of course it’s not.
But what about if a hundred of those delegates navigate to your website and read a few of the blogs you’ve inspired them to read? What about if they leave you a Google review or link to your site in a blog? What if they tweet a link to your site that gets another ten people to your site?
Now we’re directly affecting that ranking algorithm.
These are precisely the mechanisms through which a thriving social media presence can indirectly benefit your SEO and why it should play a role in your broader SEO strategy. You can read more about holistic SEO in our book here.
Social media for SEO: the strategy
So, having made some conclusions about the effect of social media on SEO, we can now make some suggestions as to how best your company might benefit. One of the first things to note, however, is that there are MANY more important factors dictating your search rankings so optimising your social media for SEO will not catapult you to the first page of Google. You need a robust SEO strategy and hopefully a website which is generating high levels of web traffic in its own right.
1. Identify the key words you wish to rank for (or your SEO company is trying to get you ranked for) based on how much search traffic they currently receive, and which of your pages is best to promote for this key word. This is probably a page with the keyword in the title, the URL, the copy and meta descriptions as well as being linked to internally from other pages (not that all these matter too much). The most important thing is that this page is interesting, well written and answers a user’s query effectively. Pages should be comprehensive and keep people on the page for a reasonable amount of time before making them navigate around your site more.
Remember that all Google is trying to do is work out whether your page is relevant to a certain search term and if it is of high quality. Indicators of these essentially become ranking factors.
This forms the basis for social media helping your search engine performance.
2. The most important factor in improving your page rank (that you have reasonable control over) is the web traffic and time spent on that page. So, if you’ve done step 1 comprehensively, you should now have 5-10 pages or posts to which you want to increase web traffic AND they should be posts people actually want to read(!). If so…start sharing on your various platforms in a value-adding kind of way. Now, this we KNOW will have a positive impact on your SEO because we are increasing two of the major indicators to Google that this page is worth reading. Note that generating traffic to your site with social media is great for more than just the SEO benefit.
This is where you must consider that pages rank (rather than whole websites) so the sharing of completely random pages, containing terms which you don’t really need to rank for, is a little bit pointless UNLESS they contain really good content which will have your audience gripped and searching for more!
3. Increase your social influence. The most obvious way to do this is to organically grow your fan and follower numbers. This may have a number of benefits to SEO. We would be inclined to think that your social media pages will now be regarded as more authoritative and they will, in fact, rank more highly as pages in their own right. We have managed sites (whose SEO was originally set up poorly) where their social media pages ranked more highly than their homepage for a number of terms. The other major benefit is, of course, that each post is likely to be seen and shared by more people so page views will be higher. There is also reason to believe that the authority of the social media pages of your brand has a ranking benefit to your associated website!
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4. Have share buttons on every page. Whilst this sounds basic, many sites do not make it easy for people to share their content over social media. Make sure you have social sharing buttons clearly visible and have them in a logical place at a point where someone would decide to actually share the post.
Don’t forget this:
5. Make sure your social media profiles are optimised. Not only will this help increase the numbers of fans and followers you have and the click rate through to your site from your social profiles but there can be more fundamental SEO benefits. Make sure you have your main keyword in your ‘about’ sections or bios as well as a link to your site – the main two to get this perfect on are Facebook and Google Plus.
These two platforms are very influential, especially in local search results – paramount if your business serves local customers and businesses. Facebook now has its own professional services search directory and Google Plus including your ratings, logically, are very important when it comes to Google searches!
As a specialist social media company, we do not do SEO ourselves and outsource that to other specialists. If you would like a recommendation for an SEO company, feel free to get in touch and there are a couple of great SEO tools out there like Majestic and SerpBook.
Find out more about how social media and search marketing work together.