Social Media and Its Effect on SEO – Correlation or Causation?

There is no denying the correlation between popularity on social media and ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs). But, does this correlation mean that search engines have now incorporated social signals into their algorithms? Let’s answer this question by starting at the beginning.

How a Search Engine Works

The point of a search engine is to bring you relevant results based on the keyword(s) that you input. How do they determine this relevance? They’ll never say exactly, but, at the 101 level, it’s a balance between your content and the popularity of the page.

Let’s ignore content for the moment and focus on popularity. How is this determined by a search engine? The most important determinant is inbound links; how many people are linking to your site? It is only logical that if many people are linking to your sisite, your site must have quality information (spammy links aside – quality counts too). But there are other factors as well, at least 200 in fact, several of which are known as social signals.

Social Media’s Influence on SEO

So where does social media f into the search algorithms? Social media is no longer this up-and-coming thing on the Internet used only by teenagers to gossip with their friends; it is now embraced by older generations as a platform for communicating with friends, sharing articles, and interacting with businesses. And, it’s been this way for quite some time. In fact, Google and Bing, the resident search engine giants, divulged way back in 2010 that they were incorporating social signals into their algorithms.

All of the data that is produced by liking, sharing, retweeting and reblogging on social media sites is literally a treasure trove of popularity information. But just how important is it to our search results?

Facebook and Twitter are both massive social networks, numbers 1 and 2 by most estimations. With well over 1 billion active users a month on Facebook and a staggering 58 million tweets per day, the power of their data to provide insights to search engines as to what is popular and relevant to actual people is priceless. The problem: Facebook and Twitter block Google’s access to this information. The solution: Google+.

Why Google+ Is Important for SEO

That’s right, Google+ does not solely exist to annoy YouTube commenters or to flood your Gmail inbox with spam from people you don’t know. In fact, in a 2013 study (see below) performed by SEO industry thought leader Moz, Google +1s showed a higher correlation with high search engine rankings than any other factor other than Page Authority (a metric created by Moz that predicts search rank based on a variety of link factors).

Social Signals for SEO

Back to our social signals: In Moz’ study (above) on correlations, while Google+ showed the highest correlation, Facebook and Twitter also both showed very strong correlations. If Google can’t crawl tweets or Facebook updates, then why is this correlation so strong and does this mean that it is worthwhile to focus on Facebook and Twitter from an SEO standpoint?

Understanding the Correlation of Social and Search

The correlation can be explained two ways: First, if something is popular on Twitter and Facebook, the likelihood of someone linking to it on their blog or +1ing it on Google+ goes up. We know Google looks at these signals, if not at Facebook and Twitter, so you see the boost in search ranking.

Second, if a website is ranking high in the search engines the logical conclusion is that more eyes are seeing the page. If more people are visiting the page, and we know the percentage of internet users that have a Facebook page is incredibly high, then logic tells us that page is much more likely to receive additional likeson Facebook and more tweets on Twitter. So, it is also possible that the inverse is actually what we are seeing: high search engine rankings are causing more Facebook likes. Remember, correlation does not always equal causation.

To answer the second part of the question, yes, it is worthwhile to focus on Facebook and Twitter, but not for direct linking benefits. It is the interactions that come from your updates and tweets that get you links on sites that Google can actually crawl and we know that these have benefits.

And we return to our original question, correlation or causation?

Correlation or Causation

The fact is that there is evidence to support both sides. Popularity on social sites, especially on Google+, does correlate with high search engine ranking. And we do have the Google and Bing testimony that they incorporate social signals into their calculations. But, without access to the sacred algorithms, we will never truly know how much weight they carry. From the outside, all we can see are the correlations.

If all we have is correlations, then that is what we have to work with. And, if you look at it from a probability standpoint, if a factor has a high correlation with search ranking, the probability is high that the factor has an actual basis in the algorithm. The same is true of the opposite. Low correlation equals low probability. So if you concentrate on several of the factors that have high correlation, your probability of catering to the algorithms is very high. Just don’t put all your eggs in one basket and it is very unlikely that you will be working for naught.

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