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Demystifying Social Signals: How Google Favors the Popular Kids, and What You Can Do to Ramp Up Your Playground Popularity

Lee Manning

Social Signals: the topic that’s got content writers the world over reaching for their “How-To” guides, as the goal posts appear to be moving again in the ever-changing Google game.

If you don’t yet know it, a social signal is a link that joins a person's social networking profile to your website. For example, you may decide to hit ‘Like’ or ‘share’ in this very article — you have given my good friends at SEMrush a social signal.

Social signals are like an endorsement of your work.

What’s the first thing you do before reading an article? You might ask yourself, “Is it worth my time?”, “How do I know this information is credible?”, or “How do I know I’m not wasting my time?”

Social signals showcase the success of your post, add credibility, catch attention and offer "social proof" to your readers. Additionally, Google has taken to rewarding websites for their social signals — and it’s adding more and more weight to that with every algorithm update.

Full steam ahead: All aboard the SS Social Signal ship?

Well, not quite.

In an interview with Google’s Matt Cutts, he hinted that good old links are still Google’s main currency of choice in comparison to social signals. However, he goes on to say, “So, there’s this perception that, yes, everything will go social, or links are completely obsolete, and I think it’s premature to reach that conclusion. I don’t doubt that in 10 years things will be more social, and those will be more powerful signals, but I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links quite yet.”

What I found very odd about this was it’s not often that Google gives steady advice with regards to getting your website to rank better. So should we take Matt Cutts at his word? My guess was no.

About two weeks later, Matt Cutts released a Webmaster video in which he confirmed that social signals do, in fact, play a role in organic SEO.

The debate has been going on for some time now. Almost three years ago, in December 2010, Danny Sullivan wrote an insightful piece on social signals and their influence on search engine rankings. There are some really interesting arguments around the debate and some would argue conclusive. I have to admit, I’m convinced they do — and not just based on the data evidence that some provide.

It’s just common sense…

For as long as I have been in digital, I have found that “What’s best for the user?” is usually best for the major search engines (give or take a few little tweaks).

When you think about some of Google’s most basic ranking factors — time on page, pages per view — you don’t have to be an algorithmic warrior to work out that these indicators would be far more reliable if a real human was able to "validate" the time spent and pages viewed. To know these factors were not due to a game of website-hide-and-seek with the users desired content, but instead, due to a relevant, engaging and share-worthy offering.

As far as I’m concerned, social signals are thunderbirds go.

Your online social networking is also telling the major search engines a thing or two about the things you like, which is really just an extension of how the search engines have worked for some time anyway. So it seems super logical that this would be the next algorithmic progression.

Social signals should not be the "one thing" you prioritize. They should be part of the mix, but an important one all the same.


The future, but not as we know it?

In as little as two years (possibly even sooner), businesses and brands alike that fail to have a solid social strategy will be left behind in the dust of those that do.

The social signal is fast becoming the distinction of a good business from a bad one. I firmly believe that a website's overall search engine popularity will be biased on its social signal status.

Reasons behind my bold "future prediction" statement:

1. Kid’s ain’t using snail mail no more (grammar deliberate).

Social gives them the ability to do what kids have always done, only faster and more convenient. In a recent conversation with my 11-year-old niece, I told her I would email her something. Her reply? “LOL*, who even emails anymore? Just tweet me the link — email's too slow.”

*It’s true: she said LOL instead of laughing. Today's kids are tomorrow's consumers.

2. Brands have opened Pandora's box.

Now that consumers have seen brands communicating with their customers and showing their human side, everyone has come to EXPECT it. We now expect our comments to be noticed and acknowledged. Those brands or business that fail to engage, simply leave a negative feeling behind for the person trying to engage.

The goal posts have well and truly moved, and about time too.

3. The stats show people are now spending more time on social networks than on search engines.

4. Websites with high social popularity are also typically doing very well converting off-line sales.

It’s basic business: Keep your customers loyal, engaged and telling other people about you, and this will lead to more people interested in your products and services.

So what can you do right now to improve? Here are nine things you can do to improve your website's social signals:

1. Add share buttons to all content (like, recommend, tweet, bookmark, plugins for WordPress, etc., are your quickest wins).

2. Make sure your website has the most popular social channels profiles set up and looking good. (Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, etc. You’ll also get some inbound links from these profiles which will also help you a little, and the presences help to add credibility, too.)

3. Make sure every page of your website has "connect" buttons that lead to your social profiles. (Obvious ways that a user can follow your brand or business on social media).

4. Make sure you have a blog that is churning out interesting, relevant, engaging and share-worthy content. Write lots.

5. Share the content you create from your social profiles.

6. Update your social profiles daily.

7. Ask your customers to share their experience with others every time you engage with them – through email, on the phone, face to face – just keep asking. With the average person having 150 friends, each one of your customers holds the key to a room full of people who could hear about your product or service.

8. Create incentives to get people to share your content: competitions, discounts of future purchases, etc.

9. Keep up-to-date with how people are using social signals by following blogs just like this.

Does that help? Did I miss anything? Can you help others who read this by adding a comment with some advice?

Author bio:

When he's not dancing like Elvis, Lee Manning is a highly passionate, super geeky, digital marketing warrior who works with brands to create digital marketing strategies.Lee specializes in social media marketing.Check out his digital marketing blog. He also hangs out on Twitter a lot.

Lee Manning

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