What Social Signals Might Search Engines Use

Late last year both Google and Bing announced they are both using social signals as part of the ranking algorithm. Those of us who have been in the game a while have long suspected this, but it’s nice to see it come from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. So, as a search marketer, what signals might they be looking at and what are some ways we can leverage to our advantage?

Probably the number one place you should be involved in is Twitter. It’s extremely likely that search engines are looking at who is tweeting and retweeting links that go to your website or are about your keyword. In fact you can already see this at work in the SERP’s right now.

Google SERPs with shared by link

Google SERPs with shared by link

A tweet from an authoritative account will carry more weight than yours …

The one thing we know, however, is that Google tries to give things credit using trust and authority metrics not just sheer numbers. So a tweet from a trusted account like say CNN carries more weight than yours. A tweet from an authoritative account like Kim Kardashian will carry more weight than yours (remember trust and authority are two different things). This is a similar concept to pagerank, and I mean internal pagerank not toolbar pagerank.

As a marketer, how can you go about assessing the trust and authority of an account, since Google and Bing aren’t sharing their metrics with us? One of the best tools right now is Klout. Before we go any further I’ll clarify there is no evidence that Google is using Klout’s data or that Google’s ranking for Twitter profiles is in way similar to Klout’s. What I am saying is Klout has fairly reliable method of assessing how “important” a Twitter account is. I’d also say that it pretty unlikely that you could have an account that is doing well in Klout but is given no value in Google. For example, let’s compare my Klout Score (screen shot) with Kim Kardashian’s (screen shot).

Michael Gray Klout Score (click to enlarge)

Kim Kardashian Klout Score (click to enlarge)

Her score is higher than mine, with the most dramatic difference in the reach, amplification, and network values. Next look at how Klout classifies our accounts and who we influence and are influenced by.

The people who I interact with fall in the middle right, lower left and lower right areas. The people who she interacts with are upper left and upper right, and are probably more trusted and authoritative (this isn’t meant to make anyone look/feel bad–I am using it simply as an example to illustrate the dramatic difference between accounts) . So, if you are looking to make the most of Twitter, concentrate on building trusted authoritative accounts and interacting with trusted authoritative people.

Where are some other places that search engines might look for signals? … Facebook. Yes, I get that a lot of Facebook is behind privacy walls and that, in Google’s case, there is almost an adversarial relationship to keep Google from the data. However, if something is popular on Facebook, it’s unlikely that it will stay on Facebook. It will leak over into other social spaces, like Twitter,  Stumbleupon, gmail, or at least pass through browsers with the Google toolbar. The more points of data that search engines see that tell them people are using, visiting, and sharing your website, the better.

This brings up the hobgoblin of paid/sponsored social media activity. Currently, all of the links are no followed on the outside, but the search engines are cagey about handling it if those tags are applied to the data they get straight from Twitter. Most sponsored tweets are required to have a hashtag to meet with FCC disclosure compliance, and Google has even said they consider hashtags a signal of low quality. That said, back room deals, friend networks, and non disclosed sponsored tweets do happen. Right now it’s probably small enough that the search engines don’t have to worry, but I expect this to change in the future, as engines become more sophisticated about interpreting social signals.

So what are the takeaways from this post:

  • Claim your names/brands/products on all the search services with a service like Knowem.
  • Choose the ones where your customers are and that you have the time to maintain–Twitter and Facebook are probably the best choices for most people
  • Strive to build up as much trust, authority, and reach as possible with your accounts
  • Use them to send signals to the search engines about your own quality content and to the content of people associated with you or who interact with you
  • If you engage in sponsored social activity, beware of algorithm changes that may devalue this tactic

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