Using links to determine online authority is what set Google up to be the search giant that it is today. The idea behind PageRank was simple; just like an authoritative paper in the real world gets cited by other papers, an authoritative site should get links from other sites online. The site with the most links (along with some other factors) is probably the most authoritative and therefore the most valuable to searchers, so it should rank well in the SERPs. Obviously the spammers sought to exploit this and for a while the only thing that mattered was how many links your site had, and not so much the quality of those links. That’s why Google pushed out Penguin last year and Penguin 2.0 just last month — to put an end to the webspam tactics that were pushing unworthy sites to the top of the SERPs.
But traditional links, even in the wake of Penguin 1.0 and 2.0, are still very much the bread and butter of SEO. Traditional link building, however, is not enough on its own to help your SEO and online brand succeed long-term. In addition to building links websites now must also be concerned about building (and earning) social signals.
Here’s what Erin Everhart of 352 Media had to say in a recent interview about traditional links and social signals;
Links are critical. Well, wait, let me rephrase: Quality links are critical. I definitely think Google is moving away from “They have the most links” to “They have damn good links pointing to some equally damn good content.” Links will always matter, but links without social signals could easily be coming under scrutiny.
Social signals are created whenever a piece of content is shared, Liked, tweeted, +1ed, and so forth. The search engines have admitted to using social signals to some degree (we don’t know how much for sure just yet) in their ranking algorithms. When you think about it, rewarding sites with many social signals makes sense — it’s a “vote” from the social stratosphere that says to the search engines “Hey, this content is interesting/engaging/entertaining or valuable in some way.” But the search engines aren’t just looking at how many social signals a site might have, they learned their lessons with links; they also consider who is creating those signals as well.
It’s incredibly easy to create 100 fake Twitter profiles that automatically retweet all your content. But the search engines don’t just look at those retweets — they look at who those retweeters are and what their social authority is. Much like websites are “graded” for authority based on their link profile and the authority of those linking sites, social signals are also graded. How many followers do your followers have? How active are they online? What kind of social authority have they built up on their own? In short, the search engines are looking for real authority to signify more real authority! They want to reward the people and brands that are openly active online and “above the table” with their social actions; giving credit where credit is due to those that are invested in educating their audience.
For instance, in the SEO world a name like Rand Fishkin means something. As the founder of Moz he has built up a wildly powerful social brand online and set himself up to be a powerful authority figure. When he speaks, people listen and you can bet that 1 tweet from him with someone else’s content in it is going to generate a whole slew of social visitors to that other site. His social authority lends credence to those that he talks about in social networks. One tweet from Rand is probably worth 100X more than 100 tweets from 100 bot accounts with no followers and no real social authority. That social signal, plus the solid links that tweet is bound to produce, go a long way in enhancing the online authority of that second site.
As Julie Joyce of Link Fish Media said, “I imagine you can get better traffic from a good tweet than you can by many links on sites that no one goes to.” The biggest difference between a tweeted link and a traditional link is that those traditional links are more “permanent” (they don’t typically disappear after a few hours) and can send visitors long after the initial flow of activity has stopped. A tweeted link might generate a ton of traffic really quickly, but just as quickly it is buried in the fire hose of information that is Twitter. The same thing happens on most other social networking sites. If you want to build up your online authority, however, you need to worry about building both traditional links and socially shared links. Both contribute to your overall online authority and long-term SEO success.
The best kind of links beget more links, and sharing your content on social media is a fantastic way to generate social signals and shares, drive traffic to your site, build your social presence and authority, and hopefully earn a few traditional links along the way.