Why Social Signals are Important for Search Engine Rankings

These days, you hear a lot about the importance of social signals on search engine rankings.

In the old days, search engines ranked pages entirely on the basis of on-page factors – which boiled down mostly to keyword density, and how it was applied to important elements of the page; the <Title> and <h1> tags, <META> tags, body copy, ALT text and so on. There is a fairly obvious problem with this method; it’s relatively easy to reverse-engineer the top ranking pages, duplicate the results, and obtain a top ranking position for yourself (hands up if you owned a copy of Webposition Gold back in the day).

Then along came an upstart search engine called Google. They did things entirely differently; they ranked web sites based in large part upon in-pointing links. These links were seen as a sort of endorsement from the “linker”. In other words, if Site A links to the similarly-themed Site B, then Site A is essentially providing a vote of confidence for Site B. And, since Site A contains high value and is credible content, Site B must be, by extension, credible too.

In many ways, this strategy vastly improved the quality of the search results surfers could expect to attain – at least for a time.

There were two major problems with the original Google algorithm.

The first one you’re well aware of I’m sure; it was relatively easy to game the system if you built links aggressively enough.

The second one is less obvious; it essentially placed the evaluation of the Net’s content into the hands of a very few people… webmasters and bloggers. When you think about it, only a relatively small percentage of people who can access the Internet maintain web sites or blogs and can contribute to Google’s algorithm. Obviously then, indications of quality from this specific audience are likely to be skewed to some degree and not entirely representative of the main audience at large.

What social signals have essentially done is to allow anyone with access to any number of the many popular social media networks the ability to have their say in assessing the quality of the content on the Net (when you consider that Facebook alone has over 1 billion active users, you can appreciate the potential impact of such a measure).

Thus Facebook “Likes”, Google “+1″s and so on are all considered “votes” for the content on which they are placed.

This makes complete sense of course, but it’s much more complex than “1 like = 1 vote”, since certain types of content generates massive social engagement (like funny videos, for example) and other types of exceptional content (like dissertations on theoretical physics) do not. There’s also the issue that fresh content – regardless of its quality – is going to have ZERO social engagement until it is exposed to significant traffic. So it’s hard to determine how large a role social signals play in determining search engine rankings. One thing is for sure though; they will continue to do so, in some capacity, from now on.

Anyhow, now you know why social signals are important for rankings. We’ll talk more about what you can do about this in another blog post

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