The authoritative answer is… yes and no.
This is a question that’s been batted back and forth for years with some big names weighing in with anecdotal and statistical evidence supporting both sides of the argument. Let’s break down some of the fact and fiction first, then explore where the real value is in both social media and SEO.
First, the assumptions
For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I’m going to be focusing my coverage on Google as the leading search engine and five of the top social platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.
The information discussed below is basically accurate for all other search engines and social sites, but you won’t find empirical evidence for any others in this post.
What’s the latest answer from Google?
As of June 6, 2016, Google’s John Mueller and Gary Illyes both effectively confirmed the same in-depth explanation provided by Matt Cutts back in January of 2014. The video below was originally released that month, in part to address this question.
Cutts’ explanation is excellent, so watch it if you’re interested, but here’s the long and short of it:
Google does not currently utilize social media posts or individual user stats as part of the official search ranking algorithm. Maybe one day, but not today.
There a number of very good reasons for this, which Cutts touches on and many other experts have chimed in on since:
- Identity is very hard to definitively establish across social sites. In other words, the John Smith I’m following on Twitter may or may not be the same John Smith I’m following on Instagram. It’s hard enough for a human being to figure that out. It’s even harder for Googlebot to figure it out automatically.
- "Authority" as it exists on social is extremely fluid and unreliable. Today’s Twitter sensation is tomorrow’s has-been. Since Googlebot only indexes a given page occasionally, the best it can do is take a snapshot of what’s happening at that moment and use that snapshot as a gauge of the site’s normal state. Social changes far too fast for that to be reliable enough to base search rankings.
- Numbers on social don't always correlate to authority. With so many sneaky methods available to increase Twitter and Facebook followers or artificially beef up what would otherwise be slim follower counts, it’s not possible to determine a particular account’s actual authority based solely on numbers like followers, retweets, shares, etc.
- Sheer volume means Google must be selective and appears to only index a tiny percentage of individual social posts. The social web currently accounts for literally billions of updates every single day. For indexing purposes, Google has to treat every individual update (a tweet, a photo upload, a status update, or a pin) as a separate web page. Although Google’s server capacity is huge, that’s way too much for them to effectively index more than about 5% of that volume.
Google simply is not willing to place something as important as where sites are ranked on their search results into the hands of finicky social media. And honestly, we should all be very glad that they don’t, because the results that would come from that algorithm change would forever be unpredictable.
And it’s tough enough already to predict search rankings.
Why this has been a question for so long
Google has been saying for years that social posts and stats have no direct bearing on search ranking. Why, then, has it remained a question to this day?
There are a few good reasons.
- From a human nature standpoint, it makes sense that it should. We’re all social creatures, which is the main reason social media has become the incredible force it is today. When we come across a Twitter account that serves up quality links on a timely basis or an Instagram account with post after interesting post grabbing our interest, we automatically form a positive view of the person behind the account. There’s really no logical reason to do so, especially knowing what we do about strategic marketing, but we’re human. We’re not logical.
- Studies published in the past cited correlations between social popularity and higher search ranking. Specifically, studies by Moz and SearchMetrics - both highly respected sources for this kind of information - noted that, in many cases, sites that were very popular on various social media platforms enjoyed a high search ranking on Google. However, according to statisticians, “correlation does not mean causation.” In other words, those sites that tend to enjoy popularity on social sites do so because they are serving up a high volume of great content - which, Google keeps telling us, is what gets you good search rankings as well.
- Google’s own 3-year experiment with “Authorship” didn’t help matters. For three years, Google allowed publishers to directly link their own Google+ accounts to individual pieces of content so that their profile information showed up in search results. Everyone immediately jumped on board, which probably did wonders for G+’s user numbers, and we all assumed that Google had to be using that connection as a means of connecting social authority (+1’s in this case) with search authority. Except they weren’t. And they told us so.
So, although the evidence and the answer is clear, there continues to be a controversy fueled by marketers and CEOs who want something to be true so badly, they feel it must be true.
Does that mean social media has no SEO value?
No, and this is where things are still a bit confusing.
Because social media still offers tremendous benefits to brands in terms of content distribution, brand building, audience building, lead generation, and a host of other areas, some of which do, indeed, factor into search ranking.
For example, one of the factors that Google definitely does pay attention to when determining how credible a given site is about a subject is an amorphous quality known as “brand authority.” Basically, this refers to how often and how extensively Google’s data links a brand with a given topic or keyword. The higher the brand authority, the higher the search ranking for that keyword the brand itself is likely to receive (all other things being equal, of course).
So, for example, for the term “inbound marketing”, there are a ton of different sites talking about this subject, and many of them are creating incredibly good content. But no one has been talking about inbound marketing for as long, or in as much depth, as Hubspot has. So, it’s nearly impossible to search for that term or anything closely related to it without finding Hubspot somewhere on page 1, often in the top 3.
Hubspot’s brand is tied intrinsically with the term “inbound marketing” in Google’s database. Nearly everyone who talks about inbound marketing links to, mentions, or in some other way involves Hubspot.
And no one can deny that a huge reason why Hubspot has managed to corner the market on that term has to do with their incredibly large and active social media footprint. Many people first learned about Hubspot from a tweet or a Facebook post, or some other social media update that either Hubspot themselves or one of their fans shared online. In that way, social media contributed to boosting Hubspot’s ranking for “inbound marketing”.
There are other examples of social media having an indirect - but powerful- impact on search ranking, but none of it is direct. These include:
- The beneficial links from authoritative sites that would not exist if content had not been found via social
- The ability social has to help content creators come up with better ideas and better ways to target their content
- The “social proof” that a retweet, share, or +1 offers a brand or piece of content when given by an influencer in the subject matter
All of these prove that social media definitely does have a ton of value for SEO. It’s just not direct value.
What do we do with this information?
Well, for one thing, it makes for excellent party conversation if you like to wow your friends with quasi-technical banter that involves quoting Matt Cutts.
For the rest of you, though, I can sum up the salient points very quickly:
- Don’t “do social” because you still think that more followers or more retweets will translate directly to higher search ranking. It’s simply not true.
- Do social because it offers huge benefits in other areas and, as a result of some of those benefits, it also can have an indirect but powerful positive effect on search ranking.
If you’d like an example of how SEO and social can work together beautifully, you’ll enjoy this case study: