How Trustworthy are Social Signals as a Ranking Algorithm in SEO?
Yet again, I’ve been thinking about the future of SEO and the effectiveness of social signals as a ranking algorithm.
I still can’t see how social signals can provide any kind of effective, ranking algorithm for search engines to use.
Ignore the fact that social signals will be ten times more susceptible to gaming then links in 12 months time (they are cheaper and quicker to obtain), the types of things that friends will “share” or “like” with their friends are completely different to the types of pages that will get linked to.
The Difference Between Socially Shared Content and Link Content
Links tend to be timeless and they accrue naturally over time. A well-written bio page on “Gandhi” or “how to backup your wordpress site” will get linked to on a regular basis from other relevant sites, allowing Google to see what is popular and authoritative.
The types of things that get social signals on the other hand tend to be ground breaking news, gossip stories and other interesting things across the web. As such, the majority of social signals are extremely short term and “viral” in nature.
Given the social element of liking, tweeting or +1 content, visitors are also going to limit to type of pages they share. Anything private or medical content is not unlikely to be shared, nor is anything that isn’t ground breaking.
I might really enjoy reading a 4-year-old page on Texas Holdem Odds or the life and career of William Shakespeare, but I’m much less likely to share it with my friends. Overall, social signals tend to be used to highlight groundbreaking news, gossip stories, pictures or the serendipity of browsing the Internet. There are certain things that are just aren’t built for sharing. A “like” isn’t the same as a personal link, instead it’s someone saying “hey come check this out” to their friends.
Social signals are too “spiky” as well. A news story will receive 1,000 likes, then disappear to the abyss of the archives. How is Google meant to work out whether this story is still relevant or up to date?
When a website links to another website however, that is a timeless piece of reference passing authority and web credence to another site. Website links have much more longevity then a human “like”, and most sites don’t link out willy nilly. It’s still an editor-conscious decision, and it’s a system which helps bring order to the Internet. It allows search engines to rank websites, understand the nature of their content, relevancy, establish a hierarchy of website structure and internal pages, whether someone is still popular, and so on…
Social signals provide no anchor text, geo-targeting or relevancy signal for Google. Just because one person on the other-side of the world likes something doesn’t mean someone else will (Just like an english .co.uk website might link to something that an Israeli .co.il site wouldn’t). If a 5-year old likes a cartoon it doesn’t mean a 50 year old professor will either. So, it’s really hard to any search engine to tear anything apart from these signals, unless of course they know the person, his profession, his age, and can recommend that sort of stuff to others in his circles (which is essentially how Facebook’s advertising is run).
This is why Google will be investing so much money in G+ and getting users on it (TV Adverts and encourage people to use it). Social signals are pointless unless you can analyse who is sharing what and who they are, what they like. When a website gets a link from another site, google analyses the relevance of the website where the link originated Why shouldn’t this be the same as social signals? I still can’t see G+ rivaling Facebook however because there is no incentive for people to migrate from Facebook to it. It’s a ghost town.
That’s one of the many reasons why I can’t see Google Authorship becoming that important. The other day I clicked on an author from a random Guardian article in the SERPs and the author had a completely, bone-dry empty G+ account. What’s the point in implementing a rel=author account if you’re not even actively using G+, lol.
In conclusion, while I think social signals will still be important in the overall SEO algorithm and in distinguishing between good and bad sites, they can’t possibly replace the effectiveness of off-page link ranking signals over the last 15 years. At least until there’s a bigger breakthrough in the social networking side of things with regards to the semantic web.