A guest post by Darrell Davis of MediaFiche.

According to Google engineer Matt Cutts, over 200 “signals” are used in the company’s search engine algorithm. And while the algorithm is top-secret, the desired goal—relevant search results—is not.

The basic premise makes sense. Create useful content, and people will flock to your site, sometimes being so kind as to share it with others via a link, which results in even more traffic and backlinks. Consequently, the best content vaults to the top of the search results as a result of this noble, democratic process of the web community.

Unfortunately, however, the process is all too often neither noble nor democratic. As for content, Google has done a fairly good job of tweaking its formula to weed out irrelevant and useless pages. On the other hand, links are more easily manipulated, and any SEO specialist knows the drill. There is article marketing, blog commenting, forum commenting, social media, and press releases to name a few link-building practices. And by the way, if you don’t have the time or the patience, you can pay someone else to do it all for you. In this age of do-it-yourself back links, it’s hard to fathom the original concept of people voluntarily linking to your content based on its own merits.

The +1 Button

Of course, none of this gaming of the system is lost on Google. It and other search engines, namely Bing, have borrowed from social media sites to build a better search engine. Both have stated that social media activity, such as “likes” and “retweets,” are now affecting search engine results. Bing landed a partnership with Facebook, which uses Bing for its on-site search function, so the upstart company can incorporate Facebook activity into its search results. A search for a local restaurant, for example, would reveal not only information about the restaurant, but also recommendations from friends based on their Facebook profiles.

Not to be outdone, Google is answering with the “+1 button,” which is akin to a Facebook "like." The button will be on search results as well as individual web pages, which allows users to make recommendations across the web. To build a social network around the search results, Google is requiring users to create a profile before taking part in the fun.

What This Means for Search Rankings

We don’t know to what extent social media is currently affecting search rankings. At the 2011 Digital Summit in Atlanta, several presenters spoke of the possibility that input from social media sites may eventually equal or trump the significance of links in search algorithms.

Over time, search engines will continue to define and optimize the role of social media in its algorithms, and the trend appears promising. The social popularity concept is already working on sites, such as Facebook, where news feeds are sorted according to popularity, and StumbleUpon, where users employ ratings to determine the best content in various categories. That the same concept will work in search is virtually a given. One lesson gleaned from social media is the reality that people highly value having a public forum in which to exchange ideas and information. Another is that personal recommendations from friends matter. Both are directly applicable to search engines.

Will the nefarious SEO specialist or business owner attempt to manipulate the process for personal gain? Undoubtedly. Countless social media profiles surely have already been enacted, with an array of fake friends contracted to post, like, retweet and Digg their way to the top of a search engine near you. There will be searches where a group of people has recommended a web page due only to their financial stake involved.

Google, Bing, and the other little engines that could are banking on personal recommendations based on genuine networking to serve as the great equalizer amidst all the unseemly tactics. Only time will reveal the ultimate results, but the marriage of search and social is a step in the right direction. Google has long advised website developers that building sites for people rather than search engines is the best strategy for high rankings. Maybe now they finally mean it.

Darrell Davis is media coordinator at MediaFiche.

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