With the recent changes to the Google Webmaster Guidelines, white hat link building has gotten stricter than ever. In addition to adding nofollow links to online press releases and guest blog posts, Matt Cutts also recently went on the record saying that links from widgets and infographics should also be nofollow. It’s starting to sound like any link you as the site owner may intentionally build needs to be nofollow in order to convince Google you aren't trying to pass PageRank or manipulate the search results. While many site owners have always done their best to play by the rules, there are plenty of spammers that exploited the loopholes of link building and now we all have to live and work in a much more black and white link building world.
With all these changes to link building in effect, including Penguin 1.0 and 2.0, I’ve been wondering for some time if social signals are one day going to replace traditional links in the SEO world. Could social shares ultimately have a more lasting impact on your organic success than traditional link building? I attended a talk here in Boston once where the speaker hypothesized that Google would use social signals and author authority to supplement, if not completely replace, the value of links because it is harder to fake true social engagement. After all, it’s not just how many shares a particular blog post may get; it’s also who shares your content that matters. Real people with real social presences are worth more than spam bots and junk social profiles. The rel=”author” tag is Google’s attempt to reward those influencers and personalities that are willing to put a name and a face to their activity. As the speaker pointed out, people would be less likely to spam if they had to tie their real name to their actions.
Social media expert Greg Finn says, “Expecting that everyone can (and will) write a post, include a link, properly format the link and link to the right location is insane to me. Everyone however can +1, share, like or retweet. Social will be the number one factor in a matter of time.” I think he makes a great point. You cannot control how, or even if, someone will link to your content.
I have one client who has been blogging for two years and recently earned a link from a popular column on Forbes.com, but it took a lot of time and a lot of content to get the point where his blog would be noticed by a Forbes columnist. That one link has an immense amount of SEO value and has delivered plenty of traffic to his site and is the perfect example of the “natural links” that Google wants to see in a site’s back link profile.
But not many websites can afford to wait 2 years to earn one quality backlink, and my guess is that my client’s active social media presence is one of the main reasons that columnist ever found his blog post. That particular blog post went live months before it ever got mentioned in Forbes, and in that time it racked up 126 Facebook Likes, 86 Tweets, 16 LinkedIn shares and 4 +1s. I have little doubt that those social signals and shares helped get that blog post noticed by the columnist.
I think in the coming months social signals are going to mean more and more to the search engines. While I don’t know if they will ever replace traditional links in the algorithm, I do believe that Google will use social and author authority as a way to separate the wheat from the chaff in the SERPs. A site that is active in social media, has a true online presence across many platforms, and makes a real effort to connect with and engage with their audience is going to be more valued than a stagnant site that just hangs around. Social signals help prove to the search engines that your website isn’t trying to play the game, but rather earn your place in the SERPs as a legitimate resource. As Erin Everhart mentioned, “Links will always matter, but links without social signals could easily be coming under scrutiny.”
Nick Stamoulis is the President of Boston SEO agency Brick Marketing. With over 13 years of industry experience Nick Stamolis shares his SEO knowledge by writing in the Brick Marketing Blog and publishing the Brick Marketing SEO Newsletter, read by over 120,000 opt-in subscribers.