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Social Now Is the Most Important Search Ranking Factor

by Jeff Woelker  |  
September 4, 2013

In the last few months, Google has been making some game-changing updates to its search algorithm, which has many search marketers scratching their heads about what to do next. Content or links? Editorial or paid? Link sculpting or disavow links? Authorship? It's enough to make even the most savvy search folks wonder, "What the heck do I do now?"

Recently, Search Metrics did an in-depth study of the most correlated variables when ranking high in search engines. The answer may be surprising in that seven of the top eight factors associated with high search rankings are social in nature.

I know, it sounds counterintuitive to what we've been hearing for years. From keywords, to page titles, to link building, the emphasis has been on everything but social. Now, however, a major groundswell is happening that is forcing search marketers to rethink the way they have been approaching search for years. As more and more search marketers were gaming the system and creating content only geared towards bots and crawlers, the web and Google were becoming a vast wasteland of unusable content farms and link pollution, some of which still remains today.

With Google's ranking algorithm changes, the company is incorporating more human elements and vetting within the machine and using social as a way to signal what's important and what is not. And Google only continues to move in this direction. Many marketers have dismissed or pushed aside Google+ as a second-rate social network only meant for niche audiences. As you can see in the chart, however, Google is going to be taking content shared at Google+ much more seriously and forcing marketers to pay attention by any means necessary.

And Google is not stopping with +1's, likes or tweets. It recently launched its review extension for Adwords, which now pulls in reviews of your products and services directly within your advertising. That further ties your efforts in social with search.

So, what can a search or social marketer do about all these changes? Here are three steps to use as you evaluate your content to ensure it’s optimized for search and social:

Would your customers share your content?

The answers to that question can be so honest and so hard at the same time. For many marketers, it didn't matter in the past if customers would share their content. It was enough to appease Google and users would inherently show up as a result.

By rethinking your content strategy and making the content more interesting, compelling, differentiated, humorous, or honest, you make it more appealing both for the consumers to read but also to share with others. And it applies just as much to B2C as B2B. I'm just as apt to share a white paper from a tech company that makes fun of industry jargon as I am to share the latest recipe from a CPG brand that gives me a good cooking idea. Both are on target, in a language their users speak, shareable, and if done correctly, searchable.

Is your content in a language your customers speak?

How do I know if my customers will share my content? It's one thing to just say it, but it's another to enact it. To that end, there are a number of data sources you can pull from these days tovalidate whether your customers would share your content. One is first and foremost social listening. By using tools such as Radian6SysomosLikester and Simmons you can find out what your consumers are talking about, what resonates with them, and what they are more likely to share. Using Likester as an example, you can find out that fans of your brand are also fans of American Idol, Nascar and Roller Derby. Let’s say your next white paper is around "How IT infrastructure is like the last lap at Daytona." First, it's a topic your audience is already interested in and second, it's a metaphor that your audience can relate to. Both factors make it instantly something your audience will resonate with. Or perhaps, your next post on Pinterest is a recipe using terms a popular show your customers like. Again, that makes your content so much more shareable than "Our latest recipe" or "Summer recipe."

How can you measure what's happening?

And the last and most critical component, how do I measure all of this? As in many other digital marketing campaigns, start small, test and learn, and scale up. You don't need to go through and optimize your entire calendar for next year or go back and optimize every piece of content you generated last year. Instead, try it out and see what works. For instance, you can easily test message using free and inexpensive paid tools to test out your messaging with a limited audience. Figure out what resonates, drives traffic, and generates leads or even foot traffic---then scale up from there. Do you wonder whether to use humor or honesty? Close-ups or landscapes? Put together some test content and run them past a small audience (limited budget, geography, targeting, etc.) and see what resonates. From there, you can make the case on a small level and obtain budget for larger efforts.

So, do you think social is the next great leap in how search engines rank their content? Or do you think search engines are trying to find relevance and draw back users from time they are spending on social networks?

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Jeff Woelker is the VP, director of Digital, at Zócalo Group, an award-winning, word-of-mouth, social and digital marketing agency in Chicago. Follow him at @JeffWoelker.

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  • by Jon Aston Wed Sep 4, 2013 via blog

    It's important not to confuse correlation with causation. What the data tells us is that the more of the highest ranking pages had these social factors in common. That's it. One could easily interpret those results in an entirely different than Jeff has. For example, isn't it possible that those high ranking pages got shared socially more often because they were high ranking? Of course it is. And based on most analytics I am privy to, that is the more likely explanation.

  • by Comrade iVan Wed Sep 4, 2013 via blog

    The previous commenter has a valid point, and that was something that bugged me too when the previous year's searchmetrics data was released .

    So I tested the social signals (specifically FB likes, Tweets and retweets - didn't do any Google +1's though), and the results were pretty clear. The more social shares I bought for the properties I was doing a test on, the higher those pages ranked.

  • by Nadio Granata Wed Sep 4, 2013 via blog

    This is very refreshing to read! I recently wrote a blog entitled 'Goodbye SEO, Hello SMO' because I too believe that we marketers need to waken up to the impact that social is and will continue to have. Thank goodness we are moving on from SEO, we've been stuck in this space for far too long.

  • by Kevin Moreland Thu Sep 5, 2013 via blog

    Interesting article. Equally interesting is the absense of YouTube and it's social impact from this list? I'd be keen to know the author's opinion on this?

  • by Jon Aston Thu Sep 5, 2013 via blog

    @ComradeIvan - I just want to be clear that I am not arguing that social signals don't affect search results - they most certainly do - but to conclude they are the most important factors affecting search ranking is misdirected.

  • by Jeff Woelker Thu Sep 5, 2013 via blog

    Hey Kevin,
    Thanks for asking. I thought that was odd as well. I think the way SearchMetrics approached this is through the lens of "what contributes to search impact" and although YouTube consistently shows up highly in many search queries, I'm not sure it's content is of direct impact to a websites rankings.

    Hope that clarifies. Thanks for reading!

  • by Elroy van Ouwerkerk Fri Sep 6, 2013 via blog

    I have to agree with Jon Aston. It's about the correlation of these things. One thing we are sure of is that Facebook and Twitter are hard to crawl, so Google can't really index much. Google Plus does get crawled, that's why it get's actual PR. So I can understand Google Plus get's more important in time.

    I am worried that too many people are making the wrong assumptions. Too many people are already shouting that social is the most important factor of SEO even though that's not the case. Let's be honest, those are still backlinks.

  • by Amanda Holt Sun Sep 8, 2013 via blog

    Google is manipulating the search results more vigorously and mercilessly than ever. Keywords play no significant role now. I really am surprised if something called SEO still exists.

  • by 40deuce Tue Sep 10, 2013 via blog

    This is all very interesting. Coming from a company the deals with both press releases (which were recently said to be paid advertising from Google) and social media we've seen some of our customers have mild freakouts about all of this.
    It's true that social sharing can really help your Google ranking. But not just because you pressed +1 on something (although I wouldn't be completely surprised if Google favoured that over other networks), but rather because social sharing is now counted as natural referral links. Google now values these natural links a lot more than anything you can concoct into your press release or website. Why? Because people who share things do it because they found it helpful or interesting, which is what Google wants it's search results to be; helpful and useful.
    So yes, a big goal of any company should be to have people share your content. The better your content is, the more people will want to share it with others. The more it gets shared, the more that Google takes notice and ups your ranking.
    It's something new that people have to get used to, but it also makes sense at the same time.

    Also, thanks for the Sysomos shout-out in the article!

    Sheldon, community manager for Marketwired

  • by Bill O'Leary Tue Sep 10, 2013 via blog

    This is potentially very misleading. The implication in this piece is that social is the key element driving SERPs. If you read the actual study that this blog post is based on, they are not saying that. They say backlinks drive it, and other than keywords in your url not mattering as much anymore, all the good old fashioned on-page content and technology factors are as important as ever. Regarding social, they admit it is not causal. Logically, the well performing sites would have long, authoritative track records and solid on-page SEO. This group would also be extremely likely to have the resources to have a strong social presence. Nothing in the study says that social drives the positive SEO results.

  • by Isidore Gotto Fri Sep 20, 2013 via blog

    Great post, it sounds like we are finally putting context to content. So no more SEO tricks its more about letting the people decide whats good or quality content. I bet these results also will change based on your social network interactions meaning who do you interact more with will tell Google that this persons likes or shares are more important to you and rank them higher vs someone at a lower degree connection. The internet is getting more personal people its a wonderful thing!

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