Have social shares overtaken backlinks as a ranking factor?

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.

Post By Lucjan Zaborowski (2 Posts)

Lucjan Zaborowski is an SEO Manager at Simply Business. He holds a Master's Degree in International Marketing from Boston University and is also a certified Project Manager with extensive experience in supporting large scale digital projects for companies such as Dell, IBM, and Microsoft.


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  • avatar

    Great! Actually, i find this relevant article. Thank you for sharing. Of course, the social share is an important ranking factor on this time.

  • avatar

    Great article Lucjan. Really got my answers from here. But one thing I need to know more specifically. In Facebook which metrics (like, share or comment) is/are valuable in the eye of Google?

  • avatar

    thanks you and good informations

  • avatar
    LinuxPune Deccan 


    Great Article
    LinuxPune.com team

  • avatar
    Lucjan Zaborowski 


    I think we all agree social shares are an outcome of great content. Therefore, we should not strive to acquire social links, as that cannot be a goal in itself. Instead, we want to produce useful web material for our audiences and hope they will find it awesome enough to share with their friends.
    I think the big advantage of social shares over links is the fact that linking is usually associated with web savy people – web masters, SEOs, bloggers and etc. Social sharing, on the other hand, is done by everyone! This means search engines get more “votes” on content – in a way, the web is more democratic.

  • avatar

    I’ve seen on fiverr where people are doing “gigs” that include buying likes or followers. They are absolutely pointless, what is the point of paying for someone who may not purchase from you or spread your information. Social Media is tricky but with the right articles or products you can gain a lot of attention. I use G+to hold all articles I find useful, so it is quite helpful for me.

  • avatar

    Well Social share is the most important activity to do for promotion. Actually it was being used from last 3-4 years but eventually comes into existance in recent years. Social share improves your existence in digital world. Google as usual gives priority to the quality content and gives prefernce over social media.
    I don’t think so social share overtaken backlinks as ranking factor. Yeah a kind of increasing factor we can say but totally dependent on social share is not the answer. If you have quality and unique content and shared on social media then you can gain popularity and increases referal traffic 🙂

  • avatar

    Creating Facebook page and twitter account has become an essential part for every online base businesses to build trust among the consumers. People will trust your site more if you have a facebook page than at the first visit of your website.

  • avatar

    I agree with you.Google has always been giving priority to user experience & hence they give space to social shares a lot more than backlinks to rank high. However, content still remains the king i believe. Either you call it as working forking for keywords or user feedback.

  • avatar

    When you think about it, it makes sense indeed.
    The age of ‘linking’ to a website you like is long gone (for most people, at least) – instead you press “Share” or “+1″… makes sense for this to appear higher in SEO!
    It seems many people still neglect this as some sort of ‘lesser importance’ and focus on the classic backlink building, which is indeed losing importance.

  • avatar

    Thank you for much for this overview. It’s extremely helpful. Thanks also for the chart which I found quite illuminating.
    It’s important that we make these modifications in our SEO strategy. This is clearly the wave of the future as social media continues to become more and more influential in our daily lives.
    It’s no surprise that Google would take this view of social shares and give them more importance as a ranking factor. For the site owners who are committed to providing quality content and who have played by the rules all along this is quite positive. Finally, they will no longer have to compete with lower quality sites that have used black-hat techniques to manipulate their rankings in the SERPs.

  • avatar
    Lucjan Zaborowski 


    Carla and Joe. Thank you for your comments. It is worth pointing out we just have no idea about the ranking weight that Google assigns to each social network. Since Google+ is their product, however, it is likely they give it a priority and make it as SEO friendly as possible. Hence, being present and active on that platform appears to be a really good strategy at the moment.

  • avatar

    It is true that social shares are a larger ranking factor than it ever was, however I would not agree that it overtaken baklinks ( at least not yet). At this moment high quality backlinks will outrank any shares and likes.

  • avatar

    Lucjan… I agree that social sharing is the new poster child for ranking success. What I’m really curious to see is how long social sharing will hold its spot in the sun. Black hatters always find a way to game the system and I think social sharing is probably one of the easier linking situations to manipulate. It’s kind of like buying bell bottoms and only being able to wear them for one season.
    I definitely encourage social sharing. But I’m still firmly rooted in the camp of create mega awesome content and get legitimate sites in your niche to link to you. That’s the one backlinking strategy that’ll never fall out of grace with Google. (I hope!)

  • avatar

    So it appears that Google is giving it’s own social media presence with a plus 1 a bigger valuation as expected they would. Thank you for taking the time to publish this updated search metrics chart. SEO is ever changing and we really do have to stay up to date because things change so fast. As you pointed out from Moz, we can benefit from focusing on Google + right now.

  • avatar

    Wow, this has proven my suspicions to be correct. All of my articles that have done well in social media are way better, in terms of ranking, than my other articles/ sites that have lots of backlinks. Some of these sites/ articles/ pages are quite new compared to my older pages that have a lot of backlinks 🙂 So it could be true, if not totally true. Great article.

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