The Straight Dope on Facebook, Twitter,
and SEO

image of a twitter icon

Ever wonder if all those links that result from people retweeting and sharing content on Twitter give you a boost with search engine optimization?

For a long time no one was sure, because the dreaded nofollow is in use on big social sites to keep those links from being counted as a “vote” for search engine purposes. No matter what, social networking links are still highly useful from a traffic perspective, because they have the power to get new readers to your content.

But in December, Google confirmed that the playing field had changed a little. Here’s what that means for you and your content.

In May, 2010, Google’s Matt Cutts announced that Google was not using social media links as a signal. And then in December, 2010, he announced equally firmly that they had changed their mind:.

We do use Twitter and Facebook links in ranking, as we always have in our web search rankings, but in addition we’re also trying to figure out a little bit about the reputation of an author or a creator on twitter or Facebook. […]

This is something that is used relatively lightly for now, and we’ll see how much we use it over time, depending on how useful it is and how robust it ends up being. The one thing I would caution people about is, don’t necessarily say to yourself, “Aha, now I’m going to go out and get reciprocal follows and I’m gonna get a ton of followers,” just like people used to get a ton of links.

In the same way that PageRank depends on not just the number of links but the quality of those links, you have to think about what are the followers that mean quality, who are the people who are actually not just bots, or some software program or things like that.

What that means is that Google has decided that social media sharing is a smart way to weed the creeps from the good guys.

Right now the effect is still probably small, while the Google teams figure out if social media sharing patterns are a reliable way to uncover the best sites and pages — and leave spam at the bottom of page 10.

(Remember, the first rule of SEO is a lot like the first rule of Copyblogger — don’t try to send users to crappy content.)

Signals

Google uses about 200 “signals” to suggest if a given page is useful or junk.

Right now, links from Twitter or Facebook are still a weak signal. That means that more weight will be given to the usual suspects — how many traditional links you have, the authority of the pages that link to you, what kind of anchor text they use, and your on-page keywords and related copy.

(Check out our free report on SEO copywriting if you want to know more about how this works.)

But those links from social sharing are now a signal that search engines are using — and if it proves a reliable way to get better pages to the top of the SERPs, they’ll turn up the volume on it.

Authority matters

Google and Bing have confirmed that they do take into account the authority of users who tweet links to your site.

If someone who looks, acts, and smells like a real user with actual authority tweets a link to your site, that counts for more than if a newbie (or a bot) does it. Which makes sense — just like if an authoritative site links to you, that counts for more than if a small, new site does.

Does that mean you should suck up to people with lots of Facebook friends and Twitter followers? Not exactly.

It does mean that you’ll want to create content that stands out in the crowd. Because of the nature of social sharing, the best stuff tends to find its way to the top. You may not have 100,000 followers, but someone in your 100 followers knows a bigger fish, and so on and so on.

But your content can only capture the attention of the biggest fish if it’s exceptional. So create the best work you can, always.

What should you do differently?

Probably the worst thing you could do would be to start gaming social networking sites to try and manufacture bigger follower/friend numbers.

Forget lame tricks that you think will make you look bigger than you are. Put that time and energy into creating better content — either by becoming a better writer or by partnering with a fantastic writer who needs what you bring to the equation.

(Your side of the bargain might be a paycheck, or it might be business expertise, or a great sense of graphic design, or killer chocolate-cream-cheese cupcakes. You’ve got to figure that part out on your own.)

If you’ve put off social media because you rely exclusively on SEO to get traffic, you might want to reconsider that.

Not only because social sharing will probably become a stronger signal, but because of the many other benefits that get the right visitors to your site.

That’s why Scribe added Twitter to its link-building tools late last year. (And we’ll include more social media link-building tools in upcoming releases.) As SEO evolves, Scribe evolves.

Social media and SEO were never actually as separate as people think — but they’re becoming more entwined every day, and there’s every reason to think that will continue.

What if Google changes their minds tomorrow?

This is always a good question to keep foremost in your mind when you’re planning your SEO strategy.

Using Twitter or Facebook purely to generate links for SEO is a short-term play that probably isn’t worth your time.

But using Twitter and Facebook to:

  • yes, generate links and also
  • get content in front of readers and
  • develop relationships with other content marketers that will earn you high-quality organic links (the old-fashioned kind) and
  • let prospective customers come to know, like and trust you and
  • translate online connections into real-world relationships and
  • do market research by listening for customer problems you might be able to solve …

… well, that’s a smart long-term play that will build your business.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and CMO of Copyblogger Media. Share your content and copywriting insights with her on twitter.

P.S.

If you find SEO confusing, Scribe was designed to make it simple. It helps you optimize content faster, choose the right keywords, and build quality links — and all with writing that sounds like you, not a robot. Check out Scribe today.

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Comments

  1. Good one Simone, I do have a question for you. Do you really think that Authority on Social Media matters? And why do you think different from Authority that you build over your blog.

    • I think it matters because Matt Cutts said they’re looking at it.

      If they’re going to count social media links, they have to weed out the bots and game-players, so it only makes sense. Anyone can game 30,000 followers if they work on it — but to build genuine authority takes more thought and work.

      • Hmmm, Okay that makes sense. Thanks Sonia. I will have to start working on my online social profiles as well.

        • You shouldn’t build up your social profile at the expense of your website. People like Copyblogger focus on building their website, and their social profiles build up in the periphery.

          • Agree with Derek on this one. Website quality is number 1 with a strong social profile backing it up. However, you need to be consistent on those social media outlets. If you don’t have time to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn… in a timely and consistent manner, then just focus on the one or two that you do have time to do.

            Sonia – a thought provoking piece – thanks for sharing.

      • Sonia,

        Great piece.

        As usual, the overriding golden rul is that if you are doing it for the sole purpose of gaming the links game, it’s probably not worth it.

  2. Sonia,

    Very interesting stuff. I have been wondering on the relative value of the social media links for SEO for a while now. I guess i had assumed right (that they were worth something, but not much, and perhaps that will change) It certinaly seems worthwhile to go about your social media the “right” way for these links and gain real and truly interactive followers.

    Thanks for the share, have a great day.

  3. Google changes their minds from day to day. It’s like mystery meat with them. On the other hand, there’s nothing more powerful than social proof these days, in terms of showing influence and credibility, so I’m assuming Google will continue to place a lot of weight on the medium.

    • Google has to change to keep up with the asshats who play stupid games to get bad content to rank. I’m no Google fangirl, but I can see why they do what they do.

  4. Sonia

    I think the strategies you summarized at the end of the article are all great ones to use to build your business – though you missed out my favourite Social Media strategy – using YouTube!. My only point of contention with the article is that doing these things – and doing them well, with great content, and thinking of building potential client relationships – will result in traffic to your website that you can either then convert to your list. Or sell products and services too. And if that is indeed the case – that these strategies work for your business, period – who cares about Google or Bing?

    Love to know your thoughts?

    paul

  5. Sonia:

    It’s nice to have a blog post on Viral marketing and SEO.

    SEO is always changing and even “experts” need to be constantly learning and re-learning.

    The Straight Dope is also the name of a Chicago Reader column, that has run for several years.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts today. I hope Copyblogger covers more on SEO – even though there are popular blogs, devoted exclusively to that topic.

    Randy

  6. I guess the concern always used to be that social media is easily hijacked in terms of link-spamming, but surely a link from someone on Twitter with half a million followers is a good indication of authority?

    That being said I’m sure social media accounts can be hacked and hijacked by spammers.

    • Anything can be gamed if you work hard enough, but authority in social media has some nifty ways it can be calculated. Number of followers is just the beginning — there are already algos out there that identify how often you’re being retweeted and by whom.

      Spammers are obviously creative and relentless, which is a big part of why legitimate SEO can be so tricky to keep up with. We get punished for what the bad guys are doing.

  7. Personally, I’ve just started trying to share my content on Facebook more because there are people who will only look at Facebook. Having my FB business page linked to my blog through Networked Blogs is a great tool, I post once, and it reposts my post to the business page. I believe Twitter has some tool like that but I haven’t figured it out yet. Also, I noticed that your post has the option to retweet or like the post on FB. To me, those numbers are what counts. If I see that someone has 10 comments on a post and has been “liked” 200 times on FB, that’s viral and like you said, who cares what Google or Bing think about it? If the quality of the content is good, it will spread. And ditto to the YouTube comment. Lastly, how is one supposed to find the time to make sure all the social media bases are covered? That’s what I want to know.

    Anna

    • Anna, my advice with social media is always to pick one platform and do it really well. Then if you feel you’ve mastered it and you have bandwidth, add another. But dont try to be everywhere — you’ll do a mediocre job at all of them, and your effort is mostly wasted. Focus on platforms where you can make an impact.

      • Mastering one platform before you move to the next is a great way to handle things, especially since we’re supposed to be participating as individuals. There’s only so much time in the day!

        As you master a platform it gets easier, and you use it more efficiently. It also loses some of its initial luster so it doesn’t suck large chunks of time out of your day the way it might at first.

  8. Please tell me who brings the killer chocolate-cream-cheese cupcakes to the table. I want to partner up with them. I made some red velvet cake balls that people enjoyed. Maybe I should barter for Google juice.

  9. Sonia!

    Well, I can attest to the use of Scribe and the social media integration…it’s in the article I sent in ;)

    When I had first read about the use of the major social networks having an impact on SEO it reminded be about your brand being more than just traditional marketing. It’s actually about your entire “content profile” – which begins with your content you create and extends to that being shared, socialized, and ‘trusted” by other authority sites.

    To me this is like link building as the foundation and social sharing of your brand as the sidekick that boosts your confidence :)

  10. Matt Cutts said: “The one thing I would caution people about is, don’t necessarily say to yourself, ‘Aha, now I’m going to go out and get reciprocal follows and I’m gonna get a ton of followers,’ just like people used to get a ton of links.”

    Considering that Google’s search results have been more and more choked with spam lately, and every few days there is another article about Google losing the spam war, I’m sure the SEO firms can sharks can smell the blood in the water, and that the vast majority of them are all going to go out and do just that. It might even work.

  11. People have to start realizing that each form of media is different and you have to cater to those audiences differently.

  12. Sonia,

    You’ve done the best job I’ve seen yet of analyzing the situation and coming up with some real common sense solutions. First and foremost, create good content. Don’t try to “beat the system”, which is sadly what a lot of people try to do in terms of SEO.

    I especially like your approach at the end: think long-term and not short-term. Social Media and relationships take time, and I think this is where most people stumble.

  13. The “Something Worth Saying” part of SEO is the challenge. Most of my clients want their content (which, on a good day is mostly pablum, on a bad day is mostly condescending) spread to more places faster. As if geting some limp and stupid article about why now is the best time for Term Life Insurance (or WHole Life) in Ossining Westchester county New York.

    That’s the challenge. The constant need to talk without having a whole lot interesting to say. I don’t know how to teach it–or if it can be taught. Entrepreneurs and their self-employed brethren often lack the patience to wait for anything (which is good) but that mentality keeps good content from getting made.

  14. Despite what Google said, I see even more spam on Facebook and Twitter. – Mike

    • Google’s only in charge of spam in its search results, which is a tough enough job. What Cutts is saying is they look for indications that someone is not a spammer on Twitter or Facebook before they factor in those links.

      • Hi Brian. Yes, I do get that point. What I was saying on the other hand is spam on Facebook and Twitter itself, not in the search results. Nonetheless, I do believe that Facebook and Twitter also have spam filters in their arsenal so I might be wrong.

  15. Great post and really helpful. The response to the comments too about focusing on one issue at a time. Thanks Sonia – you helped give me focus!

  16. The bottom line is “Does social media help build relationships and strengthen your brand?” The answer for our non-profit is yes. Social media helps promote, educate, and let’s us stay in touch in a genuine way. Social media gives us more depth in connecting to our website. The ranking builds on that.

  17. As someone who has used Scribe for over a year. I can’t think of a better service then what you guys produce.

  18. Good info, but… in the “signals” section above you wrote that “Google uses about 200 “signals” to suggest if a given page is useful or junk.” I watched a Matt Cutt’s clip, about this time last year that stated Google, in 2009 made an average of one change per day to their algorithms. That’s close to twice the 200 figure in your post. Am I to assume that some of these 365 changes are tweaks to the same “signal”?

    • Sure — only rarely would a tweak to an algorithm be to add a new signal. Most of what they do is tweak how they assess what they’re already looking at.

  19. Even without considering how Google treats social media sites, I know they are a factor by looking at Google Analytics. The number of people coming to my CCC site from social media is staggering. I only expect that to increase, regardless of what Google does. And I’m seeing more Twitter and YouTube links in my Google searches too.

    • Yeah — the major SEOs observed the effect before Google fessed up to it. :)

      • I’ll 2nd something Paul Wolfe said above. I recently added some YouTube videos about my site targeting specific words relating to it. Within two days, these videos placed better than some links that have been placing well for months from outside sites linking to us.

        • Everything that I read says that video is the new focus for social media. That is something that we want to increase on our site. We need to work on our knowledge base there. We want to keep it simple but don’t want to just film something and slap it on.

  20. Nice article Simone,

    I like that you spelled out, this is not a good short play, but if you doing it for the right reasons = good content then keep going. Thank you.

  21. Glad to get this clarified. It is all part of the ongoing game of keeping up with Google and what they are looking for. I have always integrated SEO and Social Media so this validates my early thoughts. How could Google ignore the huge importance of Facebook?

  22. Good information, Simone. I admit I don’t spend much time with the social network aspect of my business, but it is something I should attend to. I like that you talk about NOT gaming the system. That is so much of what is taught anymore, and is a lot of the reason that so many people think that SEO is constantly changing.

    TRUE SEO doesn’t constantly change; only the games change. I like what Derek said in his comment above:

    “You shouldn’t build up your social profile at the expense of your website. People like Copyblogger focus on building their website, and their social profiles build up in the periphery.”

    Great post!

    Teresa

  23. Sonia,
    Thanks for the insights and info. You know…it ultimately comes down to continuously just outputting great content that everyone loves…in return…you’ll get the tweets, fans, backlinks, etc, and can still get quality links as bigger “a-listers” pick you up, etc.

    Great stuff.

    Brandon

    • Yes, but also optimize it so you can get it shared as widely as possible. :) Step one is put out really good stuff, and then step two is make sure it gets the attention it deserves with smart promotion, which includes sensible SEO.

  24. Now this is starting to look good. Especially for those of us who have created “Real” syndication groups. Not just groups for syndication, but built around relationships. The benefit for these relationship groups is that real people get to know you like you and trust you.

    We all continue to syndicate each others quality content, while learning what works and doesn’t work for blogging and social media. The other side of the coin is that syndication alliances should be in or close to your niche. I would believe that this makes you as a blogger and syndicater more relevant and a solid authority in your niche. Over time of course.

    In addition to this I don’t think that Google can afford to NOT think about social media and it’s impact on traffic and linking. Social sites like Twitter and Facebook are rising through the ranks of traffic because it’s easy for just about everyone. And since traffic is such a big component in Google’s eyes… this type of traffic is a must for Google to start taking seriously.

    Ken Pickard
    The Network Dad

  25. I’m new to this world. Dumb question! What does SEO mean?

  26. The real SEO value is in second-hand backlinks. Sure, links on social media sites themselves are nofollowed, but if someone links to you in a blog post, that will be followed.

    Don’t just focus on social media sharing, but “blogability.” Are there qualities that make something more likely to be linked to in a blog post? I think so: you write for an audience which has a lot of bloggers in it, you create a great resource which prompts them to tell their readers (especially for link roundup type of posts) or you’re taking a stand on a divisive issue are just a few I can think of off the top of my head.

    I would certainly be glad if the Big G took social media sharing of links into account as a measure of popularity and relevance, at least temporarily while a topic is fresh.

  27. Great article. It would be great if you wrote more articles about google updates.

  28. I personally haven’t seen any fruit from being active on Facebook. Twitter seem to be a good tool to expand ones reach and bring soem traffic. But what SEO is concerned, I wouldn’t invest too much time into it for ranking. Twitter IS great for promotion, getting known, building a brand and followers for it etc.

    Social media is cited to make big waves in teh future. However, I am not convinced yet.

  29. Hi Simone — all of these tips are very insightful and helpful, thanks for sharing them all…

    However, this little nugget stands out in my mind: partnering with a fantastic writer who needs what you bring to the equation.

    Thanks much for that tip — have it tucked in my cap!

  30. Google will have to give more and more preference to social signals and I really think this is where Bing could have a big advantage due to the big tie in with facebook. It’s very early days in this space but clearly Bing will have access to lots of social data that Google doesn’t have and that is a problem for Facebook. In terms of getting traffic from these sorts of social media sites it’s actually tiny compared to what Google still sends and that is what a lot of people forget. Twitter will for blogs like this probably send between 1-3% whereas Google still brings in 70% + on most sites.

  31. This post is what I love about Copyblogger – no matter what changes occur in social media or SEO or anywhere else, the strategy remains the same: create exceptional content. The first rule of Copyblogger is the first rule of the internet and, with a little tweaking, the first rule of business and life. Do good, spread good, be helpful and there will be no need to game the system. Thanks for a great post, Sonia.

  32. Thanks for sharing the information!

    I will use this method in the future.. Thanks! :D

  33. Amazing Article.
    It would seem that the bigger your presence is on the Internet the higher rank.
    So I guess since FB and Twitter is so big. Google indexes from there too?

    Thanks for sharing this valuable info :)

  34. Hi,

    Great article. I feel that Social media is effective option of connecting with potential customers. It is certainly here to stay. We have got many new small business clients who use it.It is important that the business decides before hand what they want to achieve. Facebook and twitter too count so i will have to work more on them. Thanks for sharing these informations.

  35. It’s gonna be interesting to see how Google deals with social media, as well as the “content farms,” low-quality affiliate sites and other spammy-type websites. Yes, their algorithms can measure 200 signals but the day an automated system can determine a high-quality article from a low-quality article is a scary thought. Great article, or should I say high-quality?

  36. Content, content, content. Without great content, get off the computer and go do something, because you aren’t gonna get anywhere with your blog!

    I think SEO is great when it works out in your favour, but I wouldn’t overrely on it, it’s very temperamental. Did I mention content?

  37. If you are part of a younger generation, you may not care about Google Rank anymore. In fact, you may even have written off Google completely in your plan. Your plan might be to increase the power of your social network and nothing else – to use it as your main monetizing conduit. This will mean that your social name will be more valuable to you than search engines, domain names and SEO. If enough people think like this, then what we see currently is going to be more and more redundant. The question then will be “What value does Google have to my Facebook/Twitter account” and not the other way around. Although this has not happened yet, don’t underestimate millions of people wanting this to be so.

    • It depends a lot on who your market is. Some markets use Google very heavily. Some markets use social networks very heavily and never bother with Google. (Which drives me nuts on twitter, frankly. Don’t ask us what the capital of Afghanistan is, just Google it!) ;)

      The only danger in relying primarily on social networks is building your entire business on a platform you don’t control — for example, Facebook. But that danger is even stronger if you build your entire business on Google Adwords, as they yank even huge accounts without giving a reason or allowing you to challenge the decision.

      • You are right about large companies doing things “without giving a reason or allowing you to challenge the decision”

        Last year I was a member of a certain portal that involved monetary transactions. Somehow something went wrong on their side and I saw errors in their reporting in my GUI. I knew that either someone was hacking the system or that they had some internal vulnerability issues. I got an email from a bot telling me that my account was suspended. It was amazing because a bot made these decisions and everyone knows you cannot reply to a noreply email bot. Even trying to find a name or number for someone to talk to was impossible.

        Anyway, I was fortunately able to document the information with links to third party verification which I began posting on a blog asking if anyone had experienced this. Immediately after that my account was restored by a member of the security department from that company. They sent me a message kind of saying “We will let you back, but don’t do it again!” This message infuriated me because it meant that if I continue with their services I am admitting that I had something to do with what went wrong

        It seems that when your are dealing with large corporations who are using bots and not people to do the work, you can’t do anything if you get on the wrong side of a stick. Well, actually you can but it is so time consuming!

  38. Hey guys. Simple thought. Just create great content. :) Dan

  39. I’d like to hear other people’s opinions on whether they think Twitter Klout ratings will have a bearing on the social side of things. My own view is that these Klout scores are pretty worthless and can be easily manipulated.

    It would be interesting to know if Google were planning on using these as a factor or just going to ignore the Klout ratings altogether.

    • What if your Tweets bring more than 80% of your website traffic? Do you think that someone would be worried about some additional traffic from search engines or what experts are saying about the quality of your Twitter account? What do you think about those individuals who are now connected to over 100,000 people? Even if the click ratio is bad , let’s say 1% . Even one percent of 100,000 is 1000. How much effort does it take to get this kind of traffic the “old way?” I am curious to know what people think

    • My guess is that Google would look at systems like Klout and see if the algorithms are worth replicating.

  40. I guess in the end what counts is quality content and lots and lots of patience…

  41. Hi Sonia!

    Love your post this morning!! Mainly because it confirms what I wanted to hear… LOL! But seriously, “weeding out bots and gameplayers,” as you aptly put it, is golden news for us real people putting out real content. I knew Google would keep up!

    Thanks!

    • Well, we hope it will. :) They’re strugglng with far too many bad pages coming up in their results, but the guys at Google as pretty smart and I suspect they will figure it out.

      Or someone else will — and the same core strategies will work for *that* vehicle that sends traffic. If you keep your eye on fundamentals, the swings (sometimes very sharp swings) don’t affect you as much.

  42. I think the timeless advice here is “Embrace messages, not media.” And one could argue that Google search results are just another medium.

    • Thank you Sonja for being brave enough to tackle these subjects. I agree with Andrew. Google is just another medium. The real problem here is that most of the people who worry about these things have made money by the fact that Google has rewarded their many years of work. We rely on the “old ways” and are hoping they will continue. Someone who has a bunch of sites getting a few million page views per year is definitely going to be worried about a new policy or algorithm or new player because of the impact it could have on his wallet. I believe these people want things to slow down so that we are not paralyzed overnight.
      Do any of you remember what it was like when the internet began? There were people laughing about making money online but some of you changed the face of a particular business because of the efforts you put into a new technology. Don’t you think history can repeat itself? I personally am not going to write off anything new. I know Twitter is filled with spam but there are also real people on there looking for answers.. Looking=SEARCH and I guess we are talking about “search” engines ;) Good luck to Sonja and you all!

  43. We definitely have seen huge search result favorability when something goes viral (e.g. Digg front page) almost instantaneously.

    Good post on the topic as the search landscape is changing.

  44. I LOVE the phrase about how it weeds the creeps from the good guys – I think it’s a great solution if they can find a way to track quality. Search Engine rankings should go to those companies that are using the internet as a gateway to reach customers – If they offer the best information, the best resources, etc then they should be ranked higher. I think social media is great, if used in the right way. I know there’s a lot of industries that think they don’t need to use it, and think it’s silly. They’re probably the ones that thought the internet was a fad 20 years ago!

  45. Thank you for that information. Very informative for me. I will read it a couple more times, just to get a better understanding of it. That is how much I think it has real merit. I am just getting around to the real internet marketing. The stuff that really counts…

    Thanks again,
    Mike

  46. Social Media’s influence on online, and in marketing and advertising (both on and offline) is sort of like God: whether or not you, personally, believe – God exists because of the collective belief .
    **I stole that one from my Philosophy-PhD brother-in-law.**

    Many people find Social Media irritating, it’s a huge source of spam, and it definitely holds the potential for manipulation and abuse, but people buy into it, and it’s here to stay. Google really doesn’t have a choice, they have to play along.

    I think Social Media has a lot of potential as a marketing vehicle, but just like anything else, it must be used wisely and judiciously to be beneficial and effective.

  47. A really useful article thanks!

    You make the link between SEO and social media very clear.

    I am relatively new to blogging and have used my Twitter community to drive readers back to my site. They then interact on the blog. So it’s good to know what impact this is having and the importance of engagement.

    I have also just started using why Scribe SEO to help with social media link-building.

    Wendy ;-)

  48. I did enjoy reading this article.
    I did learn a lot reading it.

  49. so I will concentrate to improve my English and content. It is a good news from Google.