Social media and SEO

Can social media really make an impact on your SEO results?
How important social media is to the SEO bottom line is one of the most heated debates in digital marketing, and one of the most confusing, thanks to some very mixed messages from the secretive search giants themselves. In 2010 Matt Cutts – at the time Google’s head of webspam – told the world that “social signals” (numbers of likes, followers, retweets, etc) did count towards search engine results, unleashing an army of digital marketers across social media. Then in 2014 the same Cutts released a video which seemed to retract that claim, much to the same marketers’ distress. Since then, Google has often denied social media has a direct impact on SEO ranking. Which would make this a very short article indeed… except that, in practice, things don’t seem quite so simple.
We’ll explain how you can use social media in your SEO work shortly, but first let’s look at the evidence. In late 2015, social media platforms – especially Facebook and Twitter – suddenly gained much greater prominence in Google’s top 100 results for different search terms, as Hootsuite demonstrated when they investigated this topic. Google had never denied that they and other search engines did crawl platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, just like any other website pages, but played down their impact on their results. As Forbes recently wrote, it remains “unclear how much these pages impact search algorithms and rankings.”
What is clear is that social media has more influence than Google has wanted to admit. In 2018, Hootsuite conducted “Project Elephant”, so named because it aimed to address the elephant in the room of what impact social media really did have on SEO results. More details on their extremely rigorous approach can be found here, but the results were resounding: SEO-geared content that was published to social media saw a 12% improvement in SEO results, while content which was also boosted on social media saw a whopping 22% improvement.
So having established that social media does matter to your SEO results, how can you take advantage of this fact? Here are 5 principles to guide you.
1. Quality content still comes first.
In one sense, it doesn’t really matter whether thumbs up, hearts and all the other social media flourishes directly impact search rankings or not: if you focus on creating compelling content which is designed with readers in mind as much as search engines, then you will get results. Other websites will be much more likely to link to a piece offering readers real value, and that will then drive your search results up.
What’s more, if you then put this highly readable content out to social media it will generate shares and retweets which will greatly increase the number of people arriving at your website via those platforms. Does this directly impact your SEO? Perhaps not, but it can increase domain authority and may drive backlinks which we know for certain contribute to improved rankings. As optinmonster observes, “there’s no denying that the highest ranking pages in Google search results usually have a lot of shares – probably because the more your content is shared, the more people will see it and decide to link to it.”
2. Social media is search engine content.
Another reason social media needs to be an important part of your SEO strategy is a simple recognition that whenever anyone seeks out a person or brand and types their name into a search engine, their social media presence is going to feature heavily in the results. You can test this for yourself by Googling the name of almost any major brand.
Try Nike, for example: while its website still comes top, its Facebook page comes third, its Twitter profile fifth and its YouTube channel sixth. These are all branded channels that are keeping competitors and critics away from the incredibly valuable piece of real estate which is the first page of a brand’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). This alone is a good reason to invest time in building up your presence on as many major social media channels as you can, and making sure that your profile pages are as engaging as possible. As blogger and social media expert Chloe Mason Grey has argued, “social channels can feel more personal than web pages, and they’re a great way to get a sense of a company’s personality off the bat,” meaning they may actually be a more inviting search result for many.
3. Social media channels are also search engines
Rather remarkably, this simple fact still escapes some people working in SEO even though marketing gurus like Jeff Bullas have been saying “social media channels = search engines” for four whole years now. Yes, Google may be dominant as a standalone search engine, but there are many other ways consumers search, and that includes a huge amount of people who search from within social media channels. This is arguably the single most important reason why an SEO strategy that doesn’t include social media is senseless.
There are two starting points for a business determined to take advantage of this. The first is to thoroughly understand each social media channel and optimize content accordingly. Smart use of hashtags are essential on both Twitter and Instagram if new customers are to find you, but for Instagram you also need to offer something visually striking if you are to gain any real impact. The second is to take social media channels as seriously as you do your website. It’s astonishing how many businesses which would never tolerate an old website being left online still allow old, rogue and unofficial profiles bearing their name to clutter up social media channels, occupying valuable real estate and confusing potential customers. You need to be ruthless in closing them down or consolidating them, managing your brand as protectively on social media as you would on a website.
4. Apply SEO principles to social media
Building on all of the above points, you can actually apply a lot of the best practice from your SEO strategy into your social media strategy. For example, you can optimise social media profiles by ensuring keywords are embedded into core social media zones such as the about section, and then make sure these link back directly to the most relevant part of your website.

Similarly, just as working with review websites has become a core part of most SEO strategies, you should apply the same customer service values to reviews, comments and complaints your customers make on social media channels. As this feature from Social Media Today demonstrates, even a bad review can be turned into an opportunity if skilfully handled, and in almost any circumstance it is better to respond than to look arrogantly aloof. An unanswered negative review may be the end of a potential customer’s search journey, and not one which is going to generate a good result for you.
5. Never Say Never
The final principle is the simplest of all. Even if Google doesn’t allow likes or other social media indicators to influence search rankings today, that doesn’t mean they won’t tomorrow. As our introduction demonstrated, Google is known to change its mind on the value of social media to search, and the apparently never-ending growth of social media is only likely to increase pressure on Google to factor it into future search engine algorithms. If you start making social media central to your SEO strategy right now, you could be positioned ahead of your competitors when this day comes. If nothing else about this feature persuades you, we hope that huge potential headstart will. Get ready for the future today.

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