Have social shares overtaken backlinks as a ranking factor?
In December 2010, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam, confirmed that Google uses social shares as ranking signals. Since then, Google+ was launched and has gained over 500 million users, Facebook has doubled its accounts from 600 million to over 1.2 billion, and the total number of users on top social networks has grown to more than 1.8 billion. Today, social sharing is present on almost every website, and is an important indicator of content popularity and attractiveness. Since social shares so clearly indicate valuable content, they are a superb element for search engines to consider when evaluating what pages to rank at the top of results pages. But is social sharing as important as other ranking factors? Or is it that social shares have already overtaken backlinks as the most vital off-page ranking signal?
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It makes a lot of sense
Whereas link building has generally been associated with internal marketing efforts (SEO teams actively pursuing linking opportunities), social sharing can be seen as more external, in that shares can be encouraged, but they can’t be gained directly. This makes them a safer bet for search engines (compared to links), in terms of evaluating valuable and popular content. Of course, just like links, social shares can be bought in order to manipulate search engines – usually from fake accounts. However, the big social networks have been actively penalising users who buy social shares, or those who create bogus accounts. In addition, many SEOs report that they don’t see any SEO benefits from buying ‘likes’, but they do see a correlation between genuine social shares and search engine rankings.
As far as link building, the list of tactics now considered black hat by search engines is extensive. Link buying, link exchanges and link farming are just a few methods which have come under fire in the last few Google algorithm updates, and for a good reason. Tactics like these are aimed purely at manipulating search engines to gain better search rankings. They involve lots of spamming and poor quality content. Of course, there are still plenty of white hat link building methods available, which help to indicate quality content. However, it makes sense for Google, Bing and Yahoo to decrease the value to backlinks as a ranking factor, based on the negative impact of black hat link building methods and in favour of more user and activity-based social mentions.
It has already happened
A couple of months ago, Searchmetrics released an SEO rankings correlation report for Google USA, showing what distinguishes well-ranked pages in the search engine compared to those with lower rankings. The results indicate high correlation between social sharing and rankings. In fact, the research shows higher association between rankings and Google +1s, as well as Facebook shares, than between rankings and the number of backlinks. Obviously, the correlation study is just that – it doesn’t specify direct dependencies. So the fact that pages with lots of social shares rank high doesn’t necessarily mean those shares are at the root of it. Nonetheless, the report indicates the overall importance of social sharing, even more so than that of backlinks.
Similarly to Searchmetrics, a recent ranking correlation report from Moz.com finds high correlation between social shares and search rankings. In fact, their research suggests the number of Google +1s is more correlated with high rankings than the number of linking root domains a page has, and they argue that this isn’t without a reason. Moz points out that ‘the Google+ platform has qualities that make it a far superior platform for SEO and content creation around Google+ can have a greater impact on search rankings than backlinks.
How can you respond?
Acquiring quality links is still an important SEO tactic and should not be ignored. However, gaining social mentions should now play at least as significant a role in your SEO strategy as your link building efforts. Obviously, this should be done using white hat methods focused on developing high quality content, which your users find relevant and useful. Try using multiple social platforms to create and spread your content and make it as easy to share as possible. You can also:
Create business pages on Facebook and Google+, separate to your personal profiles
Use Schema.org markup code to better integrate your content with Google+
Create Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn accounts and update them regularly
Actively participate in Google+ and other social communities to build your social ranking
Develop video content and publish it using YouTube
Once you develop new content, share it several times through your social channels
Make sure all priority pages of your website contain highly visible social sharing icons
Integrate comment functions into your content pages, to encourage discussion between your users
These are just some of the more important tactics you can use to encourage social sharing and complement your other SEO activity. In reality, if you develop great content and allow people to share it, there’s a good chance your efforts will be rewarded with organic growth in mentions. And of course, this is free, and will reap equal or even better results on your search rankings than a corresponding link building campaign.