Social Signals Explained – What are they and how are they important?

Social signal has never been so important. Now, how often do we take recommendations from people in our network? Quite often, right? Whether it is for an investment, an online purchase or a personal issue , we often consult our friends or other experienced people and experts in our network. We do it to get good advice from all parties so that we can arrive at the best decision to act on. A recommendation is like a VOTE that allows you to take a step in that direction. This recommendation, in the eyes of the search engines, is a social signal.

The concept of recommendation has now come to search engines in the form of “SOCIAL SIGNAL”. What does this mean? The inclusion of the human component, YOU, in the search engine results in a more organic and dynamic manner than ever before. How does it work? Based on your recommendations through Likes, tweets and Google +, which act as social signals.

Who are these people who recommend?

You! It doesn’t have to be from someone who is a “thought leader” whose recommendation is the only thing that matters. Actually, anyone from an “average social media user” to a “thought leader” who uses social media has their recommendations counted! Your vote counts! And by extension, your friends and other people in your network’s recommendations count as well. Of course, to be fair, recommendations from thought leaders or the authority users have a higher weightage when compared to a normal social media user since they are considered as experts in the fields. Translated, it means that even though average Joe here who has just started a profile on Facebook can get his Like about a dog food web site to count, the search engines are going to give more importance to a dog food expert’s Sharing of a link on his Facebook Page concerning dog food. It’s just like consulting a lawyer concerning a legal issue or a doctor regarding a health issue. You don’t just simply ask anyone on the street and expect his or her recommendation to be the best choice!

By what means can a social media user “recommend”?

Social recommendations are everywhere nowadays. Surf to any web page and you are very likely going to be greeted by the ubiquitous Facebook logo, for example, somewhere on it. Recommendations can be in the form of a Facebook Like, a Tweet about the link, Google +1 or some other way of social media sharing or bookmarking. Search engines are quick to learn that such recommendations very much provides them the needed signal to tell the worth of a site’s information, which they can rely on in the course of improving search results.

Social Signal The New SEO: Google, Bing and Yahoo Unanimously Agreed

Google +1 is a major initiative in this direction. Google is basically trying to get recommendations from users through it’s “+1”. Social media shares from other prominent social networks (Facebook, Twitter and other bookmarking websites like Stumbleupon ) are being utilized by Google and Bing in the same manner.

Download Social Media Guide: How to build social signals (PDF)

An Example

Suppose you search for “seopressor”. Have a look at the screenshot below. The +1 next to each result with the tooltip “Recommend this page” says it all about social signals.

seopressor on Google

Let’s say that after you looked through the first ten results, you find that the third result is more relevant (useful) compared to the top two based on your search query “seopressor”. Ah, this one should be the top choice here, so how do I change this? Pretty easy! All you do is is you +1 this result. Now your recommendation counts to Google! What if 100 different users do the same? Don’t you think these 100 recommendations would make a difference? Yes, they do! These votes are a signal to Google that the search result at third place seems to be more relevant for the search query “seopressor” and other similar keywords, more so than the top two. With this signal Google knows that the users prefer the third search result compared to the first two, therefore it should be promoted in the rankings. Hey, your vote counts!

The basic purpose of the +1 next to every search result is to have a human involvement (You!) in search engine rankings, which leads to better quality search results. More importantly, Google +1 is not the only player here. Equally important are other social media recommendations including Facebook Likes, tweets, etc. The only difference is that they are not present next to the search results on Gooogle (who knows, maybe in the future this will change. You can Like directly from Google search results!)

Was This Change Really Required?

This change came about as a result of the reduced relevance of backlinks and the growing number of social media users. The following sections explain the need for this change:

The Rise and Fall of Backlinking

Gone are those days ….

Backlinking has clearly become an antiquity now. Ok, so antiquity is kind of pushing it. Still, the term “outdated” is very true when applied to backlinking to describe its situation since the introduction of the Google Panda update last year. Back before the explosion of Facebook, Tweeter and the like, backlinks were what the search engines used to determine website rankings in the early days since they were like VOTES, Likes, and Tweets for your website content.

The Internet back then was about two kinds of users:

a) Content providers

b) Readers

The content providers created content for the Internet. The other type of user were readers. Readers, well, they searched the Internet to find information provided by the content providers. Their role was limited to only reading information. They had zero or very limited participation in the creation and spreading of content on the Internet. No Likes, no shares, no Tweets. Wow!

During those times, counting backlinks to a website was a good way of judging the quality of a website since backlink spamming was minimum then. Most of the links were gained naturally. As such there was a certain level of importance attached to each backlink. A backlink was the only true recommendation at that time. The only way webmasters could abuse backlinks was to perform “link exchanges”. And of course, as time goes by, we start to see clever softwares creating backlinks, whether in a spammy way or on a contextual way. This was working for quite some time, until few recent algorithm updates that started to put less and less significance on backlinks. We certainly remember Google cracking down on few blog networks providing backlinks to webmasters right?

Uncertain and unaware about the future of algorithm change, webmaster who continues to blast on backlinks will soon see their efforts in vain. The strategies that are getting less and less significance:

  • Using Fiverr to create low quality backlinks
  • Using blog networks to provide backlinks (search crackdown on BMR)
  • Cluelessly outsource creation of backlinks
  • Profile backlink spams (on those forums)
  • Comment spamming (including the use of few blackhat softwares)
  • Submitting the same article all over the places
  • And a few more.

To know if your strategy will continue to work, ask this: Is your approach involve trying to pretend someone else who will backlink to your site. If the answer is YES, you probably want to revisit your strategy.

If Google is not going to take backlinks into account, which had always worked as a “VOTE” to show a site’s worth, what can Google do to have a better guess?

You probably has the right answer: Social Signals, or Social “Votes”.

Times have changed … – Social signal is the new “VOTE”

If you notice, the web has changed from anonymity to now, everyone’s got a profile. Be it Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest…the list goes on. To further enforce this, Google launched the author markup, which will be discussed further below.

Then came social networking. The “readers” were no longer just bystanders. They could now participate on the Internet – blog, discuss, comment, share, create profiles and network with other users and so on. With this change the significance backlinks reduced drastically:

Backlinking Earlier: Write quality content or provide a useful resource so that other websites on the Internet link to you.

Backlinking Then: Get as many links to your website by whatever means (profile links, commenting, forum signatures, social bookmarking, link exchange etc.) so that you can rank well in search engine results. I am not using “backlinking NOW” for a good reason.

Put simply, even poor quality web sites can leapfrog to the top of the search engine results because of this abuse. If you know how to play the backlinking game, you can get a site ranked high even though it is poor. Change was necessary to combat this menace.

This action came with the famous Google Panda Update of 2011. This update affected 12% of the websites. Thousands of websites reported that their backlinks have been deindexed by Google. To reduce spamming the overall effect of backlinking has been significantly reduced.

The noteworthy introduction was the integration of “SOCIAL” in search engine results. This integration came to be known as Social Signals. Social signals have largely replaced backlinks as the new “VOTE” for webpages.

How does this integration affect backlinking techniques?

Backlinking is not completely dead. Backlinking will continue to exist but with reduced importance. Google is not against backlinks. However, it is staunchly against unethical backlinking techniques. Google hates unnatural links as much as they love natural backlinks. They are doing everything they can to identify and de-value unnatural backlinks. High quality backlinks used to matter and will continue to matter in the future as well. But backlink exploitation may not seem to work very well now. So if you are still investing loads of dollars and time into unethical backlinking techniques like blog networks, article directories, reciprocal backlinks etc., you may no longer reap the benefits.

BuildMyRank (BMR), one of the popular link building service had to close recently as a consequence of Google de-indexing their links. A post at their blog said:

“Unfortunately, this morning, our scripts and manual checks have determined that the overwhelming majority of our network has been de-indexed (by Google), as of March 19, 2012. In our wildest dreams, there’s no way we could have imagined this happening.”

Many other link building service providers have equally been affected.

On the other hand, websites optimized for social signals have been showing better rankings. In our own experiments, we found that the top 10% most optimized sites in our network attract 360% more traffic with 410% more keywords being ranked. This continues to be good even after the latest algorithm change that has garnered lots of discussions and I guess we are all good with all these white-hat and genuine SEO and SEM strategies :)

So basically other than on-page factors, rankings will now be determined by a mix of backlinks and social signals. And among the two, it’s the social signals whose importance is only going to grow in the future. Backlinking is going to take a back seat.

How is this change going to affect webmasters and Internet marketers?

Webmasters and Internet marketers need a major shift in their marketing strategies to accommodate these social signals. This shift needs more effort to be put into social media strategies. The time has come when companies, brands and bloggers need to take social media more seriously. There are a number of questions associated with this change, the common ones being:

  • How do I boost social media fan following (subscribers, followers etc.)?Increasing visibility in the social media sphere is something that can’t be achieved overnight. It takes time to build a genuine fan following. However, you can accelerate the process by utilizing the best practices of social media spheres. These strategies may differ from one social network to the other. Our Social Media Marketing guide provides comprehensive tips and know-how on best practices to boost social media presence. Download it here.
  • Can I use fake profiles or similiar networks to boost my social media shares?Many of the blackhat SEO experts may have already come up with such ideas. But a word of caution – do not waste your time and money on such unethical networks. This is not going to help. Social media shares from authority users (highly active social media users) will have a much higher value than social media shares from not so active social media users. So creating fake social media profiles just for the sake of getting shares will have a negligible effect. Rather, focus on engaging with real social media users, and more importantly, the influential social media users. Network with real people and you will naturally see results.
  • How much should I invest into social media?I’ll answer this bluntly: Most of what you invested earlier in backlinking needs to be shifted to social media strategy right NOW. Backlinking has been showing diminishing effects in search engine results. Its importance is only going to fade. Most of the focus should now be on social media, but do still keep some investment for high quality backlinks.
  • Does this investment have a future?Yes, it definitely does, 100%. All major search engines (not just Google) are using social media data to rank search results now. In the future too, the effect of social media can only be expected to grow.

Use of Social Signals Has Been Confirmed

Matt Cutts on May 2010 refuted claims of using social signals in search engine results. However, in a video on December 2010 he confirmed that they are now using social media links as a ranking factor in the search engine results. Not just the real time search results, but they were using them in web search results as well.


Download Social Media Guide: How to build social signals (PDF)

Note: at 0:35: “Yes, I can confirm this. We do use Twitter, Facebook’s link and ranking as we always have in our web search ranking…we are also trying to figure out the reputation of an author…” (more about social signals and authorship markup will be discussed below)

Even Bing has confirmed that they are using social media factors in search rankings in an interview given by Dan Sullivan of Search Engine Land.

Google released the Panda updates in early 2011 and more updates thereafter. After the Google Panda updates in early 2011, Google Webmaster Central blog published a list of factors for a website to be called a high quality website. What we got here is that social signals are a very important part of this update. Some important factors directly related to social media are:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?

Trust Factor

How do you measure something as intangible as trust? Glad I’m not working on Google’s search engine algorithm team! They got their work cut out for them. You see, the trust factor does not have a dedicated algorithm associated with it, like say the old Page Rank algorithm. The higher the trust factor, the greater the possibility for a site will rank high. Trust is related to the reputation or the authority of the website, and a site’s reputation can be improved with the quality of content, social votes and visitors’ behavior.

It’s 2012 and search engines cannot ignore social media. Social media means real people. It means YOUR recommendation counts, loud and clear. Sure, spam profiles and fake profiles do exist, but that doesn’t mean that the real social media user’s vote is not going to matter just because of it. The addition of new factors/signals to the search engines is a process that involves a number of real human beings who evaluate sets of websites to rank them depending on their quality and proposed additions. Automated artificial intelligence modules are then created based on how the “human beings” ranked the websites in the sets. These automated modules are then responsible for the ranking factors that we see in search engine results. Pretty nifty, huh! And I am sure it’s more complicated that this!

Social media is the perfect place to look for these testers, the people who are testing the quality of content. What can be more important than humans evaluating content and recommending it to others using tweets, Likes or +1s? People tend to share high quality, relevant information. Sure, some of us do share the occasional crass joke or irrelevant fun link, but all in all we share things that we find interesting and care about. This is the reason why search engines can’t ignore social media. As far as the trust factor is concerned, a site with a lot of social media shares tells Google that, hey, a lot of people are finding this site relevant and trust this site’s stuff. Thus, the content can be regarded as high quality content by Google.

Author Reputation

In July 2011, a blog post at the Google Webmaster Central blog said:

“We know that great content comes from great authors, and we’re looking closely at ways this markup could help us highlight authors and rank search results.”

We better pay attention!

This blog post introduced authorship markup – associating authors with their content. Sounds like a lot of common sense. Actually it’s not simple. Google can’t just simply say, hey, this guy with this social media account just posted this content on his site. He must be the content’s original author! The reality is that there can be thousands of people with the same name on the web! Also, people can scrape and copy content and claim it as their own. So author markup is something that enables Google to distinguish who’s the real deal and simultaneously make their social network Google Plus popular.

There is an important reason behind authorship markup. Google wants to keep track of who wrote what, who created what. And also who copied and plagiarised! With authorship markup Google will be able to deal with this. This would help Google to place original content at higher rankings and ignore/penalize websites copying content from others.

Dealing with duplicate content has been the biggest headache for Google. The challenge of distinguishing between the original and the duplicate would sometimes result in degraded rankings for websites with original content. This happened to many webmasters, if you are one of them, you know what I am talking about. Authorship markup was to make this differentiation possible.

Now you can see a small pic of the original writer with his name in search engine results. This is a result of authorship markup.

Google has a clear step-by-step tutorial on how to get your authorship markup on your site.

Also, be sure to use the rich snippets testing tool to see what author data Google can get from your Page.

Some studies have suggested that once your content is linked to your Google+ Profile, it will take less than 24 hours for the Google search engine to update your content on the search results to include your pic and name. Be patient.

Author reputation may not just be limited to Google Plus. Google may be calculating author reputation on Twitter and Facebook as well. Therefore possible signals like Twitter rank, Facebook rank, Google Plus rank or social media rank may be confirmed by Google in the very near future (all for the lack of a better term). Social media influence is a term that is already being used to measure how influential one is in the social media space. Some websites like Klout, Zuvvu etc. are already using this concept.

The quality of shares may also depend on who shared. The link may get more value if it was shared by someone of high repute in the eyes of a search engine.

Bookmarking and Recommendation Factor

Bookmarking is basically meant to save, manage or organize some relevant information available on the Internet. When somebody bookmarks a web page there is definitely a value attached to it by the search engines. Bookmarks are generally associated with some really useful, relevant content. After all, who bookmarks junk and things they don’t want to read about (other than spammers)! With the advent of social media comes social bookmarking. Social bookmarking allows users to search through bookmarks of different users in line with the spirit of sharing and engaging. Websites like Stumbleupon, Reddit, Delicious, Digg etc., fall under the social bookmarking category. Social bookmarking is akin to a recommendation. If you share a particular interest with another person, you can check out his or her social bookmarkings to see what stuff, sites and content that person has been going through on the Internet because they may prove beneficial and relevant to you.

Once again, this is a case of “content review by human beings”. Can search engines ignore it? They definitely can’t afford to. Items getting more diggs, more shares, more stumbles, more tweets, etc will definitely get more “search engine love”.

5 Marketing Mantras for 2012

Focus on fresh, quality content

Among the most relevant results, the latest, most recent content may be given more value in Google search results. The freshness update enables fresh content to be indexed and ranked more quickly. This is basically going to be more effective for some “dynamic” or “changing” things – things that are more important when they contain the latest information, such as weather forecasts and sports updates. Have a look at the screenshot below. The dates with each search result show the freshness of results.

Optimize your websites for a better user experience

Less loading time, lower bounce rate and a limited number of ads on web pages above-the-fold gets you better user experience. Yes, people prefer sites that load quickly and that don’t have ads and other miscellaneous stuff splattered all over the place. Not just for the sake of your visitors but for search engines as well. Google has been taking such factors into account when ranking search results.

Let Google know you are the original author of the content

Use the authorship markup to let Google know you are the original author of the content. If you don’t do this Google may not know who the original author is. As a result other copycats or scrapers may take advantage and as a result be ranked higher than you. (there is no reason not to do this).

Forget Unethical Backlinking

Unethical backlinking is dead. Believe in such techniques at your own risk! I can safely say that at least 80% of your backlinking effort is going to be a waste. Rather, focus on getting high quality backlinks naturally with quality content and networking.

Network, Network and Network

Network as much as you can. Utilize social media networks to attract as many users as possible. Try being a part of a network of influential social media users. Promote your content on social media strategically.

Growth of The Integration Between Social Media and Search Engines

The launch of +1 and Google Plus have been the biggest factors that talk about the integration of social media and search engines. The integration may be:

  • Explicit: Search engine results indicating who in your circles +1’d it or who in your network tweeted it. This is about personalization of search results. Your friends showed interest in the content; you might as well be interested in what they recommend. Works when you are logged into your Gmail or Twitter.
  • Implicit: Search engines using the shares data in the calculation of rankings implicitly. It includes not just your network of your friends but the shares all over the network. This is what we are talking about here in this post – social signals in normal search results.

There are loads of content generated and shared over social media every hour, every second. So the integration of social media and search engines can only grow in the future. Social signals along with visitor behavior on a particular website will play a major role in deciding what people like the most. Websites will be ranked accordingly for related category of keywords.

Why Has Social Media Strategy Become More Beneficial, More Important Now?

Now is the time of social media. Hence, now is also the time for social media strategies to take front and center place. Earlier the basic expectation from a social media strategy was just virality of your content. Or, some of your social media followers may link back to your content because they find it useful, thus adding to your backlinks. However, putting lots of effort into a social media strategy has become much more beneficial now because of two words: Social Signals.

Now practicing a social media strategy is not just aimed at increasing visibility in the social media sphere, but it’s also about directly boosting search engine rankings as well. A better ROI can be expected with this transformation.

What Should You Measure?

Measurement to social media marketing is all about tracking performance. You need to know how well your site is performing, and the amount of effort needed to meet your goals. However, when it comes to social media, performance tracking can be time consuming if not integrated. Still, it’s necessary to know how well you are doing in social media.

One of the best metrics to track the performance of your content in social media is to keep a close eye on tweets, Likes, +1’s etc. With these metrics you can know which social network you are doing well in, or which social network you are lagging behind in. You can then optimize those social networks that aren’t performing as well. Social media optimization on per post basis can reap growing benefits in the short run as well as the long run:

  • Short run: You will get an instant audience
  • Long run: Improvement in reputation in social networks and search engines with time, thus leading to more audience which is the ultimate target.

5 Ways To Effectively Manage Social Signals

An Integrated Interface

An integrated interface that could tell you about the performance of your content over all major social media networks can be a great time saver. You won’t have to individually visit each social network time and again to measure the performance.

Knowing what to measure

You need to know what to measure before you can actually measure. Likes, tweets, +1s, shares etc. are the most obvious as well as best options to measure the performance of your content across social media.

Knowing the right amount of social signals that mark a good performance

Next you need to know what can be called a good performance. How many Likes, tweets and so on is needed to constitute a good performance? The more, the better. There may not be a clear demarcation that this particular number is good, but in general a growing graph for a certain time period can be considered good.

A close eye on the best and worst performing posts

Keeping track of the best and worst performing posts is a very important factor. A certain kind of comparison can be carried out between the posts that are performing well and the others that are not performing as well. This comparison may bring out many important points that can be used to optimize the poor performing content. These factors can be anything like:

  • Is the content interactive enough?
  • Is the language easy enough to reach a wider audience?
  • Should the call to action be used in the beginning or at the end of the content?
  • What important actions were missed out in the promotion of the poor performing content?

And so on…

Knowing which social media network works best for you

You should know which social network works best for you. Not only that, you should also be aware of the social networks on which you are not doing very well. This allows you to appropriately target your weak performance areas and analyze the factors not working in your favor. The main purpose of using social networks is to exploit virality. Social networks are known to make things go viral. So if due to any reason your content is going viral on one social media network, it has the potential to go viral on any other social media network. You just need to put effort in the right direction. Just for example, suppose an analysis of your content shows that your posts have been a hit on Facebook, but it isn’t getting as many tweets. What might the reasons be?

  • Have you used the tweet button along with the Like button at the most apt places on your blog?
  • Are you putting in the same amount of effort to Twitter as you are putting in to promote your posts on Facebook?
  • Are you doing enough to get more followers on Twitter on a regular basis?
  • Are you fully exploiting the features of Twitter?

And so on…

Apart from learning from your own successful social media campaigns, what you can do is to go through some network specific social media guides that can teach you how to exploit the most important features of a social network to the fullest extent.

How does Social Metrics Pro make tracking easier?

Using Social Metrics Pro for WordPress, you can centrally monitor and track social media activity across multiple social networks. It enables tracking results easily with colors. Different levels of red indicate a poor performance and levels of green indicate good performance. Reds demand more effort to make the content more popular on social networks.

It also allows you to see your most popular posts, sort and filter results as well as export them to excel – all from within your WordPress dashboard.

Social Metrics Pro helps improve your search engine rankings. This product has been designed specifically with the social signals being used by search engines to rank web pages in mind. Social Metrics Pro has already been tested on a number of WordPress websites and the results have shown a significant boost in rankings.

On our network of sites (including associates using Social Metrics Pro), what we did was to follow Social Metrics Pro’s findings, turning the reds to green systematically. The result was amazing.

Top 10% of our sites see up to 360% increase in traffic, up to 410% more keywords ranked into the first page of Google up to 310% increase in revenues. Social signal is here to stay, have you started optimizing them?

Download Social Media Guide: How to build social signals (PDF)

By Daniel Tan

P.S: Watch Your Social Metrics Pro’s video here

Share with us your thoughts :)

About Daniel Tan

Daniel Tan: A veteran Internet Marketer. Founder of SomoThemes, Social Metrics Pro, SEOPressor and XTabApps. Daniel's focus is to simplify marketing with technology, to help marketers reach more people in an organized and effective way.

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