How Social Media Affects Content Relevance in Search
Shane Snow is co-founder of Contently.com, an “agile publishing” platform for brands-turned-publishers and freelance journalists.
Old school SEO pros cover your ears, or be prepared to adapt your craft: Search engines are changing, and social media is a huge part of that change.
Bing, Google, and an increasing swath of nimble little search engines like Blekko and DuckDuckGo are incorporating social data into their results. This is potentially great news for new businesses trying to achieve visibility in search. It’s less great news for sites that rely heavily on link buying (illegal, but hard to catch), producing huge volumes of borderline-useless content (long-tail, content farm approach), or just really old domains (previously an SEO trump card).
Both Bing and Google admitted in interviews that their search results are positively affected by social signals, such as tweets, Facebook Likes, and +1s.
“As ideas, thoughts, questions and answers are shared more freely and easily than ever, the increased amount of information from social sources provides great benefits to users,” says a Microsoft spokesperson for Bing (who asked to remain anonymous).
“The links that you build through social media, the references, the authority — all can have an impact in various ways on how you are ranked and listed even in ‘regular’ search results,” says Danny Sullivan, Editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, in an email interview. “Social media allows for people to provide more trusted signals.”
Search Engines Adapt to Survive
Since the early Internet days of Excite and Webcrawler, the principal goal of search engines has been to help people find what they’re looking for. Google rose to dominate the industry by tracking better indicators of content quality than anyone else. It developed a complex algorithm that measured which websites were “voting” for others by linking to them.
Essentially, it was social media, but for websites rather than people. If your site had lots of links from relevant sites, your Google rank climbed. Plenty of other factors, like putting keywords into headlines and titles, remained in play (and continually evolved), but the game changer of the last decade was links.
The Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry emerged to help webmasters play the “me rank higher” game with Google. On the one hand, website owners attempt to adhere to Google’s standards and prove they are high quality (creating relevant, high quality content and formatting it to Google’s taste). On the other hand, shadier sites try to trick Google’s secret formula, “pretending” to be good content without having to bother with creating useful stuff.
The spammers have done well for themselves. Over the last few years, searchers have increasingly complained about the number of irrelevant or spammy results returned in searches.
The battle to the top of search keeps search engines on their toes. Every so often Google, makes an abrupt change in its algorithm, like the “Panda Update” of early 2011 that wiped out a significant number of content farm results. Periodically, new search engines launch to try to outdo Google. Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, has climbed to 30% market share since its launch in 2009. Blekko, an “anti-spam” search engine, has climbed to a million searches a day since its launch in 2007.
And now, social media is factoring in to make results even better.
Social Media Changes The Game
Social networks produce an immense amount of data about what real people like enough to share with their friends.
Today, people share 30 billion pieces of content on Facebook and over 5 billion tweets — about a quarter of which contain links to content — per month.
In an industry where knowing what humans like is crucial to success, search engines have figured out — and taken to heart — a delightfully simple mantra: If people share your content, it’s probably pretty good.
In a white paper called New Signals To Search Engines, Search Engine Strategies Advisory Board chair Mike Grehan says, “End users who previously couldn’t vote for content via links from web pages are now able to vote for content with their clicks, bookmarks, tags and ratings. These are very strong signals to search engines, and best of all, they don’t rely on the elitism of one website owner linking to another or the often mediocre crawl of a dumb bot.”
We’re already seeing proof of search engines taking social data into account when serving results.
Social Data Is Personalizing Results
Last year, Bing started incorporating Facebook like data into its search results. Results for pages that a searcher’s own friends had liked show up more prominently.
And more recently, Bing announced better results through Facebook data and “collective IQ,” meaning that things popular throughout Facebook (not just among your friends) rank more prominently.
“Search is better when it’s not just based in math and algorithms, but also infused with the opinions of people,” writes the Bing team in a blog post.
Google answered back to the Bing-Facebook deal with its own +1 button, and subsequently Google+. When searching as a logged-in Google user, you now see this social data personalizing your results.
Sullivan recounts how automaker Ford rose in his Google results after he added Ford to his Google+ account. “Ford gets into the top results for cars not because of links, not because of the content on its page, but because I was ‘friends’ with it,” Sullivan says.
Shared Content Now Ranks Higher in Organic Search
Both Google and Bing have added real-time results to their searches, meaning Twitter (and now Google+) results show up prominently above other content.
In addition, several experiments have shown that sharing stories on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ can dramatically affect regular search results as well.
In July this year, Rand Fishkin of search engine authority SEOmoz.org performed a series of experiments to see if 1) social shares affected Google search results, and 2) how quickly those results appeared. (Find the full details on the experiment here.)
Spoiler Alert: In every test Fishkin performed, tweets and Google+ shares dramatically affected the rank of new, previously unindexed content. The results in most cases were nearly instant.
“We’re experimenting with clicks on +1 buttons as just one of the hundreds of signals that influences the ranking and appearance of websites in search results,” says a Google spokesperson (who wished to remain anonymous), via email. “As with any new ranking signal, for +1’s and other social ranking signals, we’ll be starting carefully and learning how those signals are related to quality.”
A Microsoft spokesperson (who also requested anonymity), says via email that tweets and Facebook Likes do indeed positively affect a URL’s ranking in search results on Bing. “To be candid,” she says, “we are experimenting with placements in order to strike a balance between this new social signal and the other signals we have honed to determine relevance.”
“Social signals that say quality are pretty straight forward,” says the Microsoft spokesperson. “Look to things such as likes, re-tweets, shares, etc. Beyond that, watch for the sentiment surrounding the action. Are people sharing your content via Twitter yet flagging it with #fail? If so, it’s a clue they’re displeased.”
When we go to a search engine, we want to find what we’re looking for, immediately and hassle-free. It’s clear that social media is helping search engines deliver more immediacy and more relevant results. In the long run, this will help SEO-directed businesses focus on what they should be doing: creating content people love.