Yes, Virginia, Social Factors Affect Search Ranking

Most savvy SEOs have been predicting it for a while. In an interview with Danny Sullivan, Google and Bing confirmed that links shared through Twitter and Facebook directly impact rankings. With this confirmation, it’s time to look at social media in a new light.

What this means, as one commenter to Rand Fishkin’s article on the subject pointed out, is that SEO and social media marketing can no longer be thought of as separate disciplines. They’re one and the same. That said, how do Google and Bing decide which social links are important? And do some social links pass along more value than others?

Bing specifically says that “We do look at the social authority of the 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.” Google uses the terms “author authority” and “author quality,” but it’s clear that they also perform some sort of value calculation. It makes sense that the search engines would do this as part of their effort to keep spam under control.

So what factors do the search engines look at to decide how much weight, if any, to give a social media link? How high can retweets and Facebook links take your site? Fishkin can’t offer anything more than educated guesses, since the search engines are keeping quiet. But many of them parallel what Google and Bing may already be doing with normal links.

For example, Fishkin thinks diversity of sources is important. In other words, 50 tweets of a link from one account won’t get you as much value as 50 tweets from 50 unique accounts. SEOs and webmasters already try to get links from a diversity of websites, rather than lots of links from just a few.

Likewise, Fishkin thinks Google and Bing look at the message surrounding the link to get some idea of the link’s topic and keyword relevance. That makes a lot of sense, since many social links don’t provide anchor text to go on.

Let’s take another look at the terms “social authority,” “author authority,” and “author quality.” Obviously that’s going to affect the value of the link. Just as not all sites pass along equal value when they link out (or why would we keep trying to get links from .gov and .edu domains?), not all links from social media users pass along the same value. What could make one “author” worth more than another?

Fishkin offers several ideas here as well. He thinks that quantity of friends/followers might play a role, with more being better, but “low quality bots and inauthentic accounts are likely to be filtered…” They might even be easier to spot, because how many “real” people follow bots?

Another factor may be the importance of an author’s friends/followers. “Earn high ‘authority’ followers and you yourself must be a high authority person,” Fishkin notes. But authority in one area won’t necessarily translate to authority in other areas, he believes. “Being an ‘authority’ could even be subject-specific, such that when a prominent SEO tweets links to celebrity news it has less impact than when they tweet links to a web marketing resource,” he muses.

The real kicker, though – if Google and Bing are actually using it – is something Fishkin calls “association bias.” Certain authors are clearly related to certain sites. For example, SEO Chat has published more than 300 of my articles. If I link to an SEO Chat article on Facebook, it seems likely that Google would know I’m strongly associated with the site. What will it do with that information? Drawing an analogy to his situation, Fishkin thinks that “…if @randfish tweets links to *.seomoz.org, that probably means less than when I tweet links to bitlynews or when someone outside the company tweets links to SEOmoz.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use social media marketing, or that using it correctly won’t have a positive effect on your site’s ranking in the search engines. It does mean that social media marketing should be used judiciously. Good luck! 

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