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June 28, 2012
Get Real on Social Media Channels to Boost Your Rankings
 
The average user spends 405 minutes per month on Facebook. That's over 13 minutes per day on average. And here's the interesting thing about Facebook: you tell them everything.

Imagine that I, as a marketer, walked up to you and asked the following:
  1. What is your name and contact information?
  2. Where do you work?
  3. What school did/do you go to?
  4. Where do you live?
  5. Who are your friends and how much do you talk to them?
  6. Can I listen in on your conversations? (I *promise* I won't tell anyone what you said)
  7. What's your marital status? Please tell me when that changes.
  8. How many children do you have and how old are they?
  9. Can you give me access to all your pictures?
  10. What companies and things do you like? Can I ask you again in a week? How about every week?
  11. Etc.
If I asked you those questions I'd likely get one of two responses:
  1. Lies.
  2. Yelled at.
But you'll give all this and more to Facebook. The same can be said for virtually all social media properties. From Google+ to LinkedIn, they are data collection machines and using brilliant psychology they convince us to give them more data than we'd probably like to all in the promise of a better experience.

So why am I mentioning all this? What does this have to do with organic rankings? To understand how a search engine works and will work, we need to understand what they're trying to accomplish. The popular search engines have two primary missions:
  1. To generate revenue from advertising.
  2. To provide search results relevant to the user so they can better fulfill mission one.
This isn't a callous view of things; this is a case where the needs of the business (in this case, the engines) coincides nicely with the needs of its users. Provide me better results and you'll make more money. Win-win.

So what does this have to do with social media and rankings? To answer this, we need to look at the data we have given directly to the social networks and ask ourselves: Would this information help a search engine get a better understanding of:
  • What I am interested in?
  • Who I respect and whose opinions might I take into account when making decisions?
  • What companies I like and what interests I have?
  • What news and information I share or engage in when it is presented to me?
  • What companies are popular and engage with their users?
The answer here is, “Of course it would." If Google, for example, knows that I personally have a lot of friends who are SEOs and am highly interested in Internet Marketing, they know what ads are likely to attract my eye. Further to this is, if they know that 63 of my friends went to see Prometheus and I'm looking up movies, there's a good chance that if they can augment my results to favor this movie I'll be happy. Or if I'm looking for a new restaurant and search for it, if they know that a number of people I know directly or at least a number of people from my demographic group like a specific restaurant, adjusting the results to favor this location is likely to provide a better result sent to me. In short, social media signals can help provide for a better set of search results and targeted advertising, hitting two out of the two missions the search engines need to accomplish to succeed.

Let's Flash Back
Let's step back from social media for just a minute and look at how search engines have historically valued websites. In the not-too-distant past there were two main areas of rankings: onsite content and links. The onsite copy and internal links were present to provide information to the user and to the search engines regarding the relevancy and subject of a website. The external signals that the engines uses to determine the importance of a site relative to others on the web came from links (I'm simplifying but that's the gist of it). So to make your site “important” you needed to establish links from third-party websites to reinforce that other people like you and trust you. We all know this was/is easily manipulated and worse (from an engine's perspective) is that it yields no context. Site X is relevant for a subject, but to whom and why?

Social media changes all that.

With social signals, the engines can see not only that a site is liked by how it's “linked” to in social media but also how engaged those users are, who they are, and how engaged that company is with their users on their own page(s).

Are you Liked a lot of Facebook? Do you have a lot of +1's on Google+? Do people tweet about you? These are votes from real people doing real things and while they're not great at filtering it yet, spamming of social media has far clearer telltale signs than links. If you get a Like from an account that Likes 80 things per day but has little going on in the way of engaging with others, it's likely spam. If you get tweets from an account that tweets 500 times per day but has no retweets and no other engagement with its followers or who it's following — spam. And so on.

Because the signals on social media are far easier to filter based on likely abuse and because real recommendations, Likes, tweets, Pins, and +1's are coming from real people in real time with a known demographic tie and potential relationship with you, search engines need to draw in these signals if they want to stay relevant.

Integration
A major step in this process was brought clearly to light (in the U.S. at least) with the integration of Facebook Likes into the search results. Queries using Bing from the U.S. (showing a result that one of your friends in Facebook Liked) now include a “Thumb's Up” to the left of the result. Hover over that thumb and you'll see who Liked it and why. While there doesn't seem to be a large impact on personalized rankings at this point (the feature is just over a week old as of this writing), one can only imagine that's coming soon.

Will Google follow suit? The answer is: of course they will. The mere fact that I would tend to search Bing for something like a restaurant knowing that I'll get feedback from friends instantly in my results leads to that conclusion. Google can't afford to lose my searches, not even some of them, and so this type of integration is necessary. They've already added Zagat information to their results, and they will push it further.

So What Do You Do?
So as a business owner, what do you do? The interesting thing is, do what you would do in real life. Socialize. Be active on whichever social media platforms make sense for your business. But don't just shout from the rooftop about how great you are. You wouldn't do that in your shop, so don't do that on Facebook, or Google+, or LinkedIn, etc. Engage your visitors. Certainly show them your latest item and talk about what's going on, but also inform them. Keep them updated with industry news or news that would be interesting to your target demographic. Engage them. On the phone or in the store, you'd answer their questions, listen to their complaints, and ask them about their needs. You need to do that on your social network as well.

An interesting, albeit limited, study was done on social media and its impact on rankings by a company called Tasty Placement. The infographic is embedded below, but the main takeaway is that a shell social account (just following, no engagement) does little or nothing. An engaged profile with commenting, retweets, etc. can provide for significant benefits organically. And why not? Engage and you'll attract more followers and send the signal to the engines that your account, the one tied to your domain, is proactive, interesting, and relevant to the audience that follows you. And what do the engines want to serve to their searchers? Interesting, relevant, and engaging results.

Infographic: Testing Social Signals
Infographic authored by TastyPlacement, an Austin SEO company.

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Dave Davies is the CEO of Beanstalk Internet Marketing. Dave has been working as an SEO since 1999 and started Beanstalk in 2004. He writes and speaks regularly on the subject of Internet Marketing and hosts a weekly radio show on WebmasterRadio.fm. for more up-to-date tips and information on SEO and Internet Marketing.
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