The SEO Impact of Social Signals - Myth or Reality?

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The impact of social signals on SEO has been a lively debate for years. In quick review: social signals are the activities found on social media posts, such as likes, comments, shares and emoticons. Those are obviously good news – it's a sign that people are interacting with your social post! But marketers want to know, "Do these signals also boost the SEO based on post content? Are we getting a better page ranking out of this?"

The argument is ongoing, and complex, which is why you hear a lot of different answers. While we've mentioned this issue previously, we thought it was time to go into Mythbuster mode and really dig down into question: What impact do social signals have on true SEO?

1. Marketers Don't Know for Certain

If you find someone that says they are absolutely sure social signals impact SEO and they give you a firm yes or no...then they are misinformed. Marketers don't know: We can't see the actual algorithm Google uses for social media crawlers, and frankly, even if we could we probably couldn't understand it. Google's algorithm is immensely complex, influenced from many different sources included AI projects, and very difficult to parse. Research into the end-effects of social activity are also fraught with problems (more on this later). So no, there's no clear answer – at least not with the information we currently have.

2. Google Has Said Both Yes and No

Google has been known for giving us useful information on their algorithm before. Surely they have something to say about social signals? Well, they have made statements in the past...that completely contradict each other. Here's a video from the Google developer Matt Cuts saying that social signals affect SEO. Here's another video from Matt Cuts about three years later, saying that social signals have no impact on SEO. Thanks, Google!

In their defense, the algorithms do change over time, and the impact social signals have may have shifted based on Google's goals. We just don't know. The point is, looking to Google for a firm answer here hasn't been very useful. Unless they make another, all-encompassing statement in the future, this isn't much help.

3. Backlinks Appear to Matter

You know what does appear to help? Backlinks. Google awards high-quality backlinks with better page rankings. And one place that backlinks come from is social media – especially posts that encourage sharing specific blog or site content. While it's not exactly direct, this is one concrete way that social activity really will impact SEO. So if you're looking for concrete evidence, work on getting those shares, because once a new link is created to your content, it has an effect.

4. Impact May Differ From Platform to Platform

There are some indications that social signals and their impact change between social media platforms. This makes sense – Google may well want to give YouTube signals more impact on their search engine, since it owns YouTube. Other signals from platforms may be too difficult to properly quantify, so they may not get as much attention. Don't expect the same effects from all platforms.

5. The "Expertise" Factor Clouds Research

As you can imagine, there has been a lot of research into social signals. And most of that research agrees: There appears to be some correlation. But of course, correlation doesn't mean causation, and there's a huge hole with this correlation finding – the expertise factor. In other words, brands that do great on creating posts and encouraging social signals are also the brands that do great when it comes to keywords, tags, and other SEO tactics. So if their page rankings look better, it's because they know what they are doing. The impact of social signals is impossible to single out from the general expertise of the brands involved. The lesson: Be good at what you do.

6. The Greatest Impact May Be Through the "Signal Funnel"

The signal funnel is a term we created to talk about how social media posts get conversions. You see, most useful conversions don't start with an instant bounce over to your CTA web page. They start with a like. Or maybe a comment or question. If the piece really resonates, it may progress to a share or an ongoing conversation. Eventually, that signal funnel will lead prospects to your site or form, increasing your traffic and encouraging further interaction – and that's where the real results come from. So think of signals as part of a funnel that leads to high page rankings and more actions: Just because they're at the beginning of the funnel doesn't make them worthless. On the contrary – prospects have to start somewhere!

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Emily Oswalt

As social media manager at 21 Handshake, my passion of social media shines through to bring awareness to your brand. From the latest hashtag trend to engaging influencers, my desire is provide the best content to get your target audience talking online.