Over the past few years, Google has made several changes to its search algorithm to ensure that search results become more relevant to the searcher, such as the introduction of Search Plus your World which combines personalized search (tracking your logged-in personal searches) and social search (your social media connections).

So the question we are all asking, is how do Search Engines use social signals in search rankings?

How do social signals from Google Plus, Facebook or Twitter impact on Search Rankings. Are social signals becoming more important than links? Can you rank well on Google with strong social signals but fewer links? How to use Social Media to improve search rankings.

This video demonstrates how social media may have had an impact on where pages rank on Google:

Highlights and key points from the video:

What is the impact of Google+ on Search Rankings?

– Sharing in Google Plus seems to have an effect on rankings.
– Google seems to give their Plus button a big advantage when it comes to their own ranking factors.

Google says: “You will see less results with +1 now than in January 2012. I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on +1’s just yet. We are continuing to experiment. We want people to trust us. Don’t go overboard with +1 buttons on your site.” August 2012 – Matt Cutts (Head of Web Spam Team at Google.

Do Search Engines use data from Twitter & Facebook in Rankings?

Can Google Crawl & Index Facebook Profiles?
Google can crawl Facebook Profile Pages if a user‘ setting is set to allow public search. Private profiles are not crawlable.

Can Google Crawl & Index Facebook Business (Fan) Pages?
Facebook Business Pages are automatically public and therefore visible even if someone is not a fan of your Facebook page. That means that the search engine robots can crawl your page.

Does Google Index Facebook Backlinks?
The webmaster tools backlink report shows links from Facebook pages as well as Facebook subdomains.

Can Google Crawl & Index Facebook Comments?
Googlebots (spiders that crawl web pages) are now reading Facebook comments on websites just like any other text content. The Facebook comments gadget is a great thing to have in your website because its easy to just log in to your Facebook account and post a comment on a web page. You can also search the text of these comments using regular Google search.

Does Google use Facebook Shares to influence Ranking Signals?
At the SMX 2011 Conference Matt Cutts said that Google does not crawl Facebook “wall” pages and implied that they don’t use Facebook shares for ranking. However many experiments by SEO’s have shown Facebook Shares on the first page of Search Results.

What do the Search Engines say about Facebook Signals?
Bing Says: “We do look at the social authority of a user. We look at how many people you follow, how many follow you, and this can add a little weight to a listing in regular search results. It carries much more weight in Bing Social Search, where tweets from more authoritative people will flow to the top when best match relevancy is used.” (2010)

Google Says: “I confirm that Google does use Twitter & Facebook Links as ranking signals. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We use Social Signals to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article.” December 2010 – Matt Cutts (Head of Web Spam Team @ Google)

So then why is there such a strong correlation between Facebook Shares and increased Rankings?

What SEO’s say:
– Links: Pages that are heavily shared on Facebook tend to also be heavily linked to.
– Other social signals: Pages that are shared on Facebook also tend to be tweeted about and shared through Google.
– Quality content: People share pages that they find interesting and have high quality content.
– Brand Signals: There is likely more interaction with well known brands than lesser known brands, and this might drive deeper engagement with them on Facebook.

What about Twitter’s Signals? Do Tweets get indexed on Google?
When new articles are tweeted, they are discovered and indexed quickly.When they are not tweeted, it takes the search engine bots more time to find and index them.

Does the number of Tweets influence rankings?
The number of tweets and the number of tweeters seems to make a difference for ranking. The more times a new article or page gets tweeted, the better chance the target URL has of ranking well.

Does the number of Followers have an impact on Rankings?
To bump an established link up in rankings, it seems necessary that the tweet come from a well-respected, influential, and relevant Twitter account. The ratio of followers/following influences the authority of the Tweet.

A recent ‘accidental experiment’ by a Martin Macdonald showed an article ranking on the first page of the Search Results within less than a week, where the article had no backlinks and was only shared by “influencers” on Twitter.

This experiment revealed the following:
– Social signals are very important in the early stages of rankings.
– If your article gets shared (50 to 100 shares) by many influential people you get higher exposure for a limited amount of time.
– After about a week your content starts to drop in rankings.

What does Google say about Tweets and Followers?
“Google can tell how many times a page has been tweeted. The number of Twitter Followers is a potential social signal.” (August 2012) – Matt Cutts (Head of Web Spam Team @ Google)

Are Social Signals then becoming more important than links for Search Engine Rankings?
According to Google’s Matt Cutts, Social Signals are not yet more important than links and links are still very important.

Your content needs to be good enough to earn many authoritative backlinks for long-term rankings. Remember, “…The objectives is not to make your links appear natural, the objective is that your links ARE natural”. Says Matt Cutts.

My final thoughts on why Social Media Signals affect Search Engine Rankings:

– Google knows what search queries are trending and when it should be looking for fresher content.
– Google likes fresh, relevant original content. The Google Panda update confirms this.
– If your content is favored by people, it helps Google determine the relevance and quality of content.
– The more authoritative people favour content, the more likely you are to earn natural quality backlinks.
– The more natural, quality backlinks you earn, the better your chances are of ranking higher. The Google Penguin update confirms this.
– The better the search results “advertisement” (Title Tag, Description & URL) the higher your CTR (Click thru rate).
– If the landing page meets the searchers expectation it will lower your bounce rate. Proper keyword research and on-page optimisation will ensure this.

In conclusion, focus on good quality content that people will want to share. These are the signals that will add long-term search engine rankings and SEO success!