A New Perspective: Does Google Use Social Signals When Determining Rank?

Could social signals be one of the mysterious 200+ factors that Google considers in order to determine your website’s rank?

SEOs and digital marketers have been debating the question for ages. But what does the data actually say?

Here’s a new perspective that attempts to answer this constantly debated question.

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Google Says No

Google is often cryptic about what factors it uses to determine rank, but in the case of social signals, they’ve actually been fairly straightforward.

Many Google representatives have mentioned that social signals are not a rank factor. One of the most recent came from the former head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts:

Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index, so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But as far as doing special, specific work to sort of say ‘You have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook’, to the best of my knowledge we don’t currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.

The Correlations Say Maybe

Despite Google’s insistence, SEO experts have been skeptical enough to take a look at the relationship between rank and social signals themselves.

In 2015, Searchmetrics published its most recent rank factors, based on analysis of 10,000 keywords and the top 30 search results.

In it, they found strong correlations between social signals and PageRank for Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest:

Searchmetrics correlations between social signals

More recently, Simon Penson voiced his skepticism on Search Engine Watch, showing readers an analysis of PageRank and social signals:

Search Engine Watch social signal correlations graph

According to Penson, the spikes he observed in the correlations between rank and Facebook engagement – as well as rank and Google plus +1’s – may be the result of one of Google’s commonly unannounced search updates bringing these social signals in as real factors.

These are just a couple of the many correlation studies out there that would all seem to point towards a real relationship between social signals and rank.

However, they all have the same fatal flaw…

Correlation ≠ Causation

These analyses are definitely strong evidence for a relationship between rank and social signals, and it’s certainly interesting to see that Google+ is playing such a prominent role.

Still, everyone who took Stats 101 knows that correlation does not imply causation. There could be a number of different reasons why high-ranking pages also have more social signals.

Considering how much Google focuses on quality content that brings value to users, it would be no surprise that such content would rank well and receive a lot of social signals without the two being connected.

It’s also possible that a page has garnered more social signals because it was easily found in search results. We just can’t say for sure.

Still, Google Values Social

While the statistics out there don’t really prove anything, it’s clear that Google does place certain value on social.

Social Posts Show Up in Search

Just like any other web page, social posts can and often do show up in search when they rank for relevant keywords or product names, which will give the website more visibility in search.

However, John Mueller of Google admitted that’s not the extent of the connection:

Another aspect there specifically around Twitter and Google+ at the moment, is that when we recognize that there is content on these social networks that is relevant to the user, we will try to show that in the search results as well. I believe we show Twitter content in the U.S. on mobile (now desktop also), so that is something that might be visible as well.

The Deal With Twitter

Since 2011, Google has been working with Twitter to gain access to its social data so that tweets can be quickly and efficiently integrated into Google’s search results.

The relationship has been stop-and-go, but as of this May, Google officially started integrating tweets into mobile searches.

Why does this matter?

The fact that Google pays special attention to social signals – and has even made an agreement to make it easier to index them in search – shows that Google really does see social signals as indicators of quality.

One thing is clear: Google treats social pages differently than any other type of web page it ranks.

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To Answer the Question…

So based on all of that, does Google use social signals when determining rank?

As far as we should be concerned, the answer is yes.

The bottom line is that the kind of content that gets social signals is the same kind of content that gets rank.

Social signals might not be built into the algorithm like backlinks and keywords, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be treating them like the important rank factors they are.

And considering Google’s special treatment of social signals in search, including its current and likely future dealings with Twitter, it wouldn’t be surprising if social signals became a more traditional part of the algorithms going forward.

Regardless, the message is the same. Social signals may be an indirect factor for boosting SEO, but a factor is a factor. So there’s no reason why generating quality content that garners them shouldn’t be a part of your SEO strategy.

What are you doing to increase your social media engagement? I’d love to hear about it. Share your favorite techniques in the comments below.

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