This is a guest article by Randy Pickard.
An active social media campaign that connects with an audience is likely to produce a boost in search engine rankings. Yet, there is no conclusive evidence that a social media campaign manufactured solely for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes will provide much of a rankings boost if it fails to gain traction. Given the resources required to launch and update social media campaigns, this provides a challenge for those involved in the SEO efforts for small and medium sized sites. A basic social media program is probably a must, but how much time and effort should be dedicated to it? Can the resources required to develop a social media campaign that actually establishes connections be justified? Will an SEO focused social media campaign that generates little more than manufactured links provide a rankings benefit? Given that social media is likely to be increasingly incorporated into the search engine algorithms, does this require that social media be a major component of all SEO programs?
The Recent Head Fake in Regard to Facebook Shares
On April 19, 2011, Rand Fishkin suggested in a blog post that, “Facebook shares might be more valuable than Likes and more influential in Google’s rankings than Twitter”. This conclusion was based on an analysis of the correlation between social media features and high search engine ranking results. This pronouncement set off a flurry of links being “shared” on Facebook by the SEO community. .
It turns out that adding all these Facebook Shares had little impact on SEO. The correlation between Facebook shares and high rankings is present without there being any causation. Thus, the factors that lead to lots of Facebook shares also lead to high search engine rankings. In fact, according to Matt Cutts, Google’s chief spam cop, Google does “not crawl Facebook wall pages” and implied that they don’t use Facebook shares for ranking.
This chasing after Facebook Shares offers an example of manufactured social media links not providing much value. Time will tell whether going “viral” is a requirement for social media efforts to produce powerful SEO benefits. It also provides an example of how difficult it is to measure the impact of social media efforts upon search engine ranking. Separating out correlation from causation in search engine ranking changes is challenging.
Social Annotations in Search
The recent integration by Bing and Google of social media connections into search results raises the profile of social connectivity. As demonstrated by the results shown below of a Bing search I conducted for the term “shopping baskets”, the integration of Facebook “Likes” has two highly visible SEO benefits for the second result that may lead to more clicks than the top result:
1) increased shelf space on SERP’s viewed by connections due to rofile images being added to ShoppingBasketsPlus.
2) perceived endorsements which likely leads to higher click thru rates from connection viewing this result.
However, this may be a case where there is less than meets the eye. As impactful as it is to see Facebook and Twitter profile images on Bing and Google for your own personal searches, unless you have thousands of connections, your target audience may only rarely be exposed to profile images. Don’t extrapolate your reaction to your personalized results onto a wider audience that is unlikely to see profiles. In the above shopping basket example, there over 1,000,000 retail stores in the U.S. that represent the target audience for this site. Only a tiny fraction are in my social circle.
Given how little is known about how social media is being incorporated into search engine algorithms and how quickly it is evolving, social media effort focused solely on SEO benefits may be misguided. A metric that can be used to benchmark a social media program is how many Facebook Shares it produces organically. Another obvious metric to use to evaluate social media campaigns is the number of visitors it is driving to a site. Given that a social media program that connects with an audience can provide lots of benefits, it may be appropriate to consider the positive impact on search engine rankings as icing on the cake.
Those with SEO responsibilities should work at learning how to make social media effective based on the particular characteristics of each sites’ target audience. But also, be cautious not to go chasing after shiny objects in the social media sphere as they can easily become unproductive time sucks. It is still too early to come to definitive conclusions about the role of social media in SEO, making it challenging to figure out how to allocate SEO resources to social media. Finally, social media campaigns should typically be evaluated based on much broader metrics than simply their impact on SEO.
Randy Pickard has been optimizing sites for search engine rankings since 1996. He currently manages SEO and PPC campaigns for clients and proprietary sites. Randy is the author of Internet Marketing Remarks and the General Manager of Shopping Baskets Plus. A supplier of plastic shopping baskets to retail stores.