How does social media activity impact search engine optimization? That’s a common question these days as publishers try to make the most of search and social for audience development.
While the role of social media signals in Google and Bing’s ranking algorithms is still evolving there are already a number of ways that social media is having a clear influence.
Here are five ways that social media impacts SEO, or more specifically search engine visibility, rankings and traffic:
1. Annotations in the Search Results
Both Google and Bing use social data to annotate select listings on their search engine results pages.
The annotations include things like a thumbnail image or an indication that someone the user is connected to (be that a person or a brand) has shared or liked the page.
This extra visual information attracts user attention which leads to improved clickthrough rates and thus increased traffic from search engines.
2. Personalized Rankings
In addition to annotations the engines also personalize the order of their search results based on a number of factors including social connections and activity.
Google’s “Search Plus Your World” puts the most weight on Google+ activity but other social signals are taken into consideration too. Bing has stronger relationships with Facebook and Twitter so it is in a better position to utilize their data.
This means if a user has +1′ed or liked or shared a particular Web page that page is more likely to appear higher in their search results.
Similarly if a user is connected to a brand’s official page things the brand has shared or posted are more likely to be given prominence in the user’s results (as seen in the screenshots above).
The ranking changes are most apparent for signed-in users but personalization impacts the results of users that are not signed in as well.
Beyond personalized search results the engines are also looking at social activity in aggregate to help evaluate the popularity or relative importance of content and the authority of both sites and authors.
Thus social media activity can impact overall rankings too although still to a limited degree at this time.
3. Secondary Links
When it comes to ranking factors links are still much more important than social shares. A link from a quality, trusted site has considerably greater weight than a like, tweet or +1.
Fortunately a good deal of social activity revolves around sharing links. Unfortunately many social media sites add a “nofollow” attribute to any links within user generated content. This is a necessary step to combat spam but it takes away the SEO value of the links.
However links from social media still have considerable indirect SEO value because users discover content through them which leads to links in other places (like blogs) that do have SEO value.
As a result social media activity is a good source of secondary links. Dan Zarrella’s look at the correlations between social sharing and inbound links helps to illustrate this point.
For more on this topic see my analysis of what types of sites get the most links from Pinterest.
4. Highlighting Authors
In some instances Google is now highlighting author information in its search results.
Highlighted authors get a thumbnail headshot, Google+ information plus as a “More by” link that surfaces more of their work:
As with other forms of social annotations this extra exposure has the potential to increase clickthrough rates so it is worth taking advantage of the opportunity.
Participation requires creating a Google+ profile and connecting it to the sites that the person is writing for. See the Google help link above for details.
Beyond author markup in the search results, both Google and Bing are beginning to utilize the concept of AuthorRank in which trusted, popular authors may be given a boost in search and social media visibility.
The engines have long used factors like domain authority, trust and link popularity in their ranking algorithms for websites and pages. Now these concepts are being applied to individuals too and social media activity is an important signal in making those calculations.
In essence, the work and activity of writers with a strong social presence may be given greater weight in determining search and social media visibility. So authors that have an active following with good engagement, and whose content is frequently shared and linked to, will have a leg up.
Ultimately it is about establishing things like trust, credibility, popularity, influence and topical authority, all of which are good for both SEO and social media marketing. It is still early days in terms of the impact of AuthorRank but it is something that is worth experimenting with.