The use of “Social Signals” as a tool to gauge the quality of content on a website is a fairly new way that search engines can calculate the value of content on the web. Such signals as likes, shares and the number of followers or people in your circles can be taken to indicate the amount of value that people find in the content that you produce. This makes sense because people tend to like, share and follow accounts that provide them ongoing value in some way.
Search engines are constantly working to make the user experience better on their services. They want to provide the most relevant, useful information possible for each search query. That just makes sense as the person using the search engine to look for information is the end user of the service. Of course everyone with a site on the web is also a customer on the other end of the search process or as a user of online advertising services such as Adwords.
Backlinks are nothing new, almost from the beginning the Google search algorithm has used the number of sites that link back to a page as a way to learn how much inherent value a particular web page has to people interested in the topic/product/service that is featured on that page. Of course there is that certain percentage of the population who always finds a way to game the system in order to personally profit in some way and backlinks on the web have always been seen as a way to make poor quality, spammy content appear higher in search results than it would otherwise.
Some examples of the ways that people have done this are 1; by posting links to their page in the comments box on other websites and in web based forums all over the web. Their links and comments had nothing to do with the content of the post or page that they left it on. This is called Link Spamming and the search engines have learned to identify and ignore such backlinks and the sites of those who still try to post them. 2; other people made a business of creating websites for no other purpose than to create artificial backlinks for paying customers 3; some created websites for the purpose of exploiting the concept of guest Blogging and link swapping to create artificial importance for low quality content.
The search engines have learned to identify all of the “Black Hat” SEO methods above and more. The cheaters are increasingly finding their content dropping from their former position in search results and even being removed from the indexes of search engines. Life has become harder for cheaters.
Now that social signals have become a ranking factor for the search engines the same sorts of people are finding ways to try to exploit this medium for undeserved search engine rank. As a business owner it is very important to know how to get the best position in organic search results that you can have and everyone knows this. Whenever a new search engine update is announced there are countless articles written about the effects of the new update and how to position yourself to take full advantage of it. It is just as important to know what NOT to do because taking the easy way out is not usually the best way.
As an example I want to take a look at the Facebook pages of three companies. All of them are national brands in the manufactured housing industry and they make a specialized sort of house that has limited to nonexistent popularity outside the US and Europe. Lets see which of the three is trying to use Black Hat link building methods to build their follower base on Facebook in order to artificially create Social Signals that they want to use to increase the position of their content in search results on the web.
Social Signals; Example 1
In the example above it is obvious that the company has been paying someone to artificially inflate their follower count. The reasoning is simple, someone said more followers = better SERP (search engine ranking position) and gave them a good price to make them appear to be the most popular company in the world who builds this type of house. That person was probably located in Egypt, judging by the data provided by Facebook. As a result this company is the most popular company of their type in Cairo. Of course they are not in Cairo, they are in the US. In addition, despite their big number of followers, very few of those followers actually engage with the contents of the page (less than 2%).
Search engines are becoming much smarter. Social Signals involve a lot more than just gross numbers of likes and shares. The data above is publicly available and so there is no reason that search engines cannot take this extra data into account when determining who to show this Facebook profile and it’s connected website to.
If I was the search engine I would say that the best person to show this page and website to would be someone searching on a term related to the type of house that this company builds who is located in the Middle East (especially Egypt) and who is between the ages of 25 and 34 years old. I guarantee you this page would not get many views going by that criteria and those Social Signals would actually decrease the chances of the page showing up high in search results for someone in the US doing the same search.
Social Signals; Example 2
This site is probably currently the number two site in search results for this industry. Like the first example they too are obviously employing old fashioned Black Hat SEO tactics to attempt to artificially inflate the value of their content. It looks like this company has made use of a somewhat more skilled Black Hat SEO guy as their follower engagement is actually 14%. I have a bit more respect for these as they actually try to make it look like someone really does care about the content on the page even though that is just a slightly better thought out attempt to deceive the search engines.
In the case of this company they seem to be the most popular specialty home builder in Bangkok, Thailand even though I would bet quite a bit of money that they have never sold a single home in Thailand. They do have a good age demographic for their product (in Thailand) at that is a slight improvement over the company in example 1.
Social Signals; Example 3
In this example we see another of the major players in this particular industry. The website of this company (along with the other two) routinely shows up on the first page of search results for a related term. However the Social Signals being sent by this company are quite different than those being sent by the other two. In the case of this company, even though they have far fewer total followers, the engagement of their followers is nearly 16% and their best geographic area is Colchester, Illinois, right in the center of the United States which is the industries number one market. In addition their main demographic is also within the industry ideal 45-55 years of age.
Another interesting fact is that the company in the third example is only a little over a year old while the other two have been in business and on the web for 20 years or more. How is this possible, that an upstart company can catch up to and slowly overtake these two industry giants on the web? Because the company in the third example is doing things the right way. They have optimized their online presence according to Google Best Practices. They have developed an ongoing content strategy that keeps their followers informed about their products and services and they distribute that content to their social networks.
This is in line with something Google has said; it is the quality not the quantity of backlinks that matters and Social signals are really just another form of Backlinks. I have no idea why so many people and companies are falling right into the pitch of the snake oil backlink salesmen all over again just like they did the first time around. The end result with without doubt be the same. All of these artificial friends and likes and shares is going to come around to bite them. Maybe not today or tomorrow but it will not be long before search engines learn how to gauge the value of social signals the same way they already do backlinks and take appropriate action against the fraudster companies who so carefully cultivate them now. I hope this story is a warning to the wise and an example that doing it right really is the best way to achieve lasting success on (and off) the web.