Social Signals – sending Google the right message

Social Signals – Not Just for Geeks

What is the very best type of lead you can possibly get contacting you? The one that has been recommended to you by another contact – hands down, every time this is the very best type of prospect you could possibly want in your business. Somebody coming in on the strength of a recommendation is pre-qualified (i.e. you KNOW they want what you have to offer), they are pre-sold (i.e. they have already been told how great you are at what you do) and as a result they are very likely to end up as a paying customer – normally pretty quickly. It is amazing how frequently we ask our friends and contacts for advice, or to provide a contact that may be able to solve a particular problem for us. If you are in ANY doubt about this, go and look at any online business community. I would quite happily bet that at least a quarter of all the posts are people asking for recommendations for various products and services. I am lucky enough to be a member of a group called “Suffolk Business Stars” on FaceBook, and barely a day goes by without somebody asking for EXACTLY this kind of information. Here’s a quick selection from today:

social signals
social signals
social signals
social signals

Needless to say, each of these posts attracted quick responses from this community, and I would hazard a guess that each post very quickly resulted in some cash changing hands, very likely to the person recommended by a respondent.

So, in real life, we are familiar and comfortable with the concept of a personal recommendation. Because us techie types don’t like to call a spade a spade (it is either an acronym for Stratospheric Photochemistry, Aerosols and Dynamics Expedition or it is a non-mechanical excavating device), we can’t just simply call it personal recommendations. So the boffins at Google coined the phrase “social signals“. Effectively, social signals is simply the addition of the human component, YOU, into the search ranking calculations. This has evolved very quickly and is now done in a more comprehensive and detailed manner than ever before. Social platforms such as FaceBook, Twitter and LinkedIn started the process off, then Google+ was a very obvious next step and now it includes a wide variety of social interactions (with the latest playmate being Pinterest). Pretty much ANYTHING you do publicly online when logged in has the potential to have an effect on your search rankings.

Who are the social influencers?

In every network, there are key people – the ones who say that yellow is a funky colour and all of a sudden everybody is wearing yellow. It is very similar online, with people who have huge levels of influence on Twitter, FaceBook and the other platforms (in fact there are even sites that will tell you how high your influence ranking is). So who is it that is having the biggest impact and whose social signals count for more than everybody else’s?

Believe it or not – YOU! Even if you only have one follower on twitter and your FaceBook friends list looks like Quasi Modo’s “Littel Black Book”, you have a say in what happens in the search results. However, it goes without saying that the bigger your network of online connections, the more your online activity influences the search results. To put this another way, an internet beginner who only recently created their profile on Facebook can get their “Like” about a financial web site to count, but Google is going to give higher credibility to an accountant with a long online history and a big network who then “Shares” that same link on their financial Facebook Page which is all focused on accounting and financial management. Again, this is similar to “the real world” where you would give more credibility to the advice of a GP concerning the best surgeon to use for a specialist procedure than you would to your neighbour having a chat over the garden fence. In real life you wouldn’t simply ask a random person on the street and expect his or her recommendation to be the best choice!

Google+ is quite transparent in the way it allows you to affect (or pollute – depending on your point of view) the search results your contacts see (more about this below), but most users now browse – and therefore search – whilst logged in to their social platforms. Because of this your social contacts can be picked out and the websites, articles and information that they like can have an effect on what you seee. The idea being like minded people will want to see similar things.

By natural extension, your friends and the other contacts in your network will also be able to affect what YOU see – their recommendations count as well.

How can you “recommend”?

Social signals can be started from just about anywhere today! Go to pretty much any website and you are fairly likely to see the blue F logo to let you know the site has integration with FaceBook. Chances are you will also see the Twitter icon and a couple more besides. These mean that directly from that web page you can send a social signal in the form of a FaceBook like, sharing the page on FaceBook, twetting the link, adding it to your LinkedIn network or writing about it on Google +.

Google +1 is a major initiative in this direction. Google is basically trying to get recommendations from users through it’s “+1”. Social media shares from other prominent social networks (Facebook, Twitter and other bookmarking websites like Stumbleupon ) are being utilized by Google and Bing in the same manner.

An Example

Suppose you search for “SEO Ipswich”. Have a look at the screenshot below. Because I am logged in, my online contacts’ actions have been automatically added to the search results, with a mugshot or two and their names displayed to give me more confidence in clicking on to this website. The second results is one I have visited a couple of times and tehrefore Google is trying to help me out by making this site more prominent (yes, even your search activity is a social signal and WILL influence what your online contacts see in their search results!)
seo ipswich on Google

Now, lets look at this same search query with me logged out:
seo ipswich on Google when logged out

This time you will notice the site in second place is completely different, and the recommendations have been removed. Those recommendations come from people clicking the +1 button – either when they are on this website or directly from the search results. The +1 is, without a doubt, the most obvious and directly effective social signal to send – but beware as Google knows that a natural mixture of social signals will not only come from one social platform, so if you have all of your eggs in one basket and only use one channel to promote your website you will probably not see the benefit of your efforts.

Why are social signals so important?

The most frustrating thing about searching for web pages is when you are presented with irrelevant or useless information. The search engines know this, and have been beavering away for years to try and serve the most useful websites for the search queries that match them. This is now very easy to do, as you can “vote up” information you think your friends and family will like and bring it to their attention – which people have been doing on FaceBook for about 2 and a half years now. However, the +1 button directly in the search results mean you can take pro-active action to help Google to clean up shop.

For example, say that you search for something and after you have looked through the top ten results, in your opinion the seventh result is the one which actually answered your question when compared to the sites ranked higher. So, to help your online contacts out, you +1 this website. Now you have become a part of the Google decision making process on where that website SHOULD rank. By yourself, on a competitive search word, it is quite unlikely this will have a direct imapct, but what if 100 different users all do the same? There is now a compelling argument to Google that the site in seventh place should actually be placed higher. Google has only one purpose, and that is to serve up useful web pages. This strength of feeling demonstrated with the mass +1 clicks that Google has it wrong, and it will therefore revise the rankings accordingly. This is democracy bought to the search results.

The main purpose of the plus one displayed with every search result is to promote human involvement (You!) in the search engine decision process, which in turn leads to much better quality in the search results. Remember though that Google +1 isn’t the only platform with power to influence. Of a similar stature and power to affect search results are Facebook Likes, FaceBook share activity, tweets, Pinterest pins and many more besides. The only obvious difference is that these other sites don’t appear within the search results (at present anyway – who knows what’s next?)

Times have changed – Social signal is the new linking strategy

A few years back, without a website you had very little opportunity to actually interact with the internet. As a result, websites used to engage in link building as the mainstay of trying to show Google that their site “mattered”. As everybody now has an online presence of their own with greater control over how they are seen online, the shift has naturally followed that the search engines will look to signals from the public rather than just looking at signals from other business owners.

Websites optimized for social signals have been consistently showing improved rankings. Those of you who know me will also know that I like to experiment, and record what happens when I do different things – I am always looking to improve our SEO techniques and use these experiments to constantly monitor and evolve our service for clients. In these experiments, we found that the websites in our client base with the best social integration (FaceBook share and like buttons, Twitter buttons, StumbleUpon, Digg etc along with Pinterest and G+) attracted 360% higher traffic with an average of 410% more keywords being ranked in the top 10..

The most common questions our customers are asking us about social signals:

  • How do I increase my social media network (Facebook fans, subscribers, twitter followers etc.)?
    It takes time, patience, a solid strategy and perhaps a bit of luck to build a big fan following. Creating a profile and expecting to have a network of thousands of followers in days is not practical – unless you happen to be a platinum selling female artist. The same things that apply to offline marketing take effect here. If you go to networking meetings and spend your whole time selling or talking about yourself, you will not be the person everybody else is trying to speak to. If, however you are genuinely involved and INTERACT with your network, sales will naturally follow, your network (and reputation) will grow and you will benefit from your efforts.
  • Can’t I just make fake profiles or buy fake “likes”?
    Just as it has done with questionable link practices in the last few years, Google has learned very quickly how to detect authentic social profiles and fake ones. This especially applies to Google Plus users – a genuine account is likely to be using other Google services and searching whilst logged in. In addition, shares from well respected users (with large networks of their own and high quality postings) will always have higher value than shares from just registered or very low network users. Focus on engaging and interacting with other social media users and your network will grow. Also try to seek out and interact with influential social media users – it will be quite easy to spot who the movers and shakers are and who other people in your network defer to. Trying to cheat the system will almost always backfire, and at the very best will only be a short term solution.
  • What money, resources and time should I put into social media?
    Whatever you can afford. Do NOT break the bank trying to employ a whole social media team to get the best effect, but whatever social media activity you are already doing should perhaps be revised and a strategy drawn up to ensure you are getting the best benefit from your OWN social interactions – your activity will invariably be the trigger for other people to start promoting your website, so concentrate on getting the right connections and talking to them about your business and how it will benefit them. If you can afford to, then obviously we would recommend using a company like ours, but as a minimum I would suggest booking a strategy session with a local social media specialist.
  • Is this investment short term or long term?
    Absolutely, definitely, certainly long term! Social signals are here, they are growing in importance at an amazing pace and are sure to continue being a big influence on search results. That is not to say you will not see short term results – we have seen sites jump from 20th to 2nd in as little as a week as a direct result of positive social signals – but the benefit of this strategy is one which will stick with your website for many years to come.


Use of Social Signals – Google Agrees!

In May 2010, Matt Cutts oof Google publicly stated that social media platforms had no influence in the search engine rankings. In a video released in December 2010 he reversed this statement, confirming that Google DOES use social signals in the ranking algorithm.



Note: at 0:35: “Yes, I can confirm this. We do use Twitter, Facebook’s link and ranking as we always have in our web search ranking…we are also trying to figure out the reputation of an author…”

Bing has also confirmed that they are using social media factors in search rankings in an interview given by Dan Sullivan to Search Engine Land.

The now infamous Panda updates started in Spring 2011 and quite a few more reincarnations since signalled the start of Google’s war on poor quality websites. Google decided that this war would be much easier if it actually explained what it was doing to webmasters, giving them an opportunity to rectify poor quality websites if they needed to. Part of this communication involved letting webmasters know what Google considers to be the important factors directly related to social media.

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?

Social Signals – the Trust Factor

Part of this tranche of changes involved trying to determine the trust factor of an individual web page, and of the overall site on which it is published. Unlike most things with Google, trust does not have a specific algorithm, but is more a blend of a number of other algorithms – by factoring in website reputation, social signals, quality of content and visitor behaviour (yes, if lots of people come onto your website and leave straight away [termed a "bounce" in search engine circles], your rankings WILL be harmed – conversely if lots of people click through to your site and stick around for a while your rankings will benefit), Google is able to figure how trustworthy your website is in the eyes of the end user.

Social media means real people. YOUR opinion counts, loud and clear. Whether your individual opinion is being used to influence those already within your sphere of influence, or your opinion combined with those of others to form mass opinion, what you decide is worthy of a social “vote” will benefit pretty quickly from that action on your part. This is partly due to the astronomic growth of FaceBook (and to a lesser part Twitter), but the last decade has seen a definite swing towards interaction, and social media is the ultimate way in which you as a consumer can interact with the brands you see on the web, and conversely how you as a brand on the web can interact with your consumers.

Author Reputation

In July 2011, a blog post at the Google Webmaster Central blog said:

“We know that great content comes from great authors, and we’re looking closely at ways this markup could help us highlight authors and rank search results.”

This was the starting gun for Google’s next big step along the path of social signals – authorship markup. This allows Google to associate authors with their content. The reason this is important is because it now allows Google to attach PEOPLE to websites, and people are actually easier to keep track of. For example, I have a FaceBook, a Twitter, a LinkedIn and a Google Plus account. Twitter and FaceBook along with LinkedIn have been hooked together for quite a while. Now the new player (Google Plus) also allows me to hook my other social platforms in, and whats more it allows me to prove that this content was written by me.

By attaching my profiles to my content, Google now has a pretty good idea about the quality, amount and topic of my content. This allows the search engine to figure out whether I am an influential person within the field I most commonly type about, and if so then I will automatically attract higher rankings on any future content authored by me. This is something you do yourself – if you are an avid book reader you will automatically give preference to books you have enjoyed in the past because you know and trust the author. Google is taking this to the next (automated) level. There is a word of warning here though – bad content has the potential to pollute ALL of your content! It also allows Google to figure very quickly who is plagiarising who….

Detecting and removing duplicate content has for a long time been one of the biggest obstacles for Google. One of the main issues is that Google had no way of figuring who wrote the original, and whether the subsequent copies were “inspired by” or straight up hijacking of copy. By connecting my social profile to a body of work, Google is able to automatically and instantly receive notification that I have written this document. If within the following 10 minutes an identical copy materialises in its index, Google now has the power to know where the original came from and apply the penalty to the correct website. It can also see the rest of my work and know that this article is written in my style and that I normally write original content – or in other words Google now has TRUST in me as an author….

Another nice part of the author markup is that information about the writer of an article can appear in the search results – again if the name is one you trust you will be more likely to click this article, and your action would actually feed back into the calculations as your trust in my work is further “social proof” – sending string social signals that I am somebody writing good content on my subject….
Tony Blacker author snippet

If you would like to get the Author information showing up for your posts, take a look at the official Google article on how to get your authorship markup

It is definitely worth the effort of getting this markup included in your content, especially if you are a small business owner where your name is synonymous with your business. However, it is not always straight forward – I have seen author details included in less than 24 hours, but adding mine took nearly 2 weeks. Be patient.

Your reputation as a writer at the moment is only obviously linked to your Google Plus account – but your other social network accounts will also have an effect, and some search engine specialists already believe Twitter and FaceBook updates are directly referenced when determining the ranking of an article. Personally I have not seen any evidence of this as yet, but you can bet that it is the next natural step so will not be long in coming. For this reason, ensure that you take ownership of your content – using words like “my article” and “I wrote” will help establish ownership, and always try to update your social platforms as quickly as you can after your articles are published.

Bookmarking and Recommendation Factor

Rewind 4 or 5 years, and social bookmarking was all the rage – most SEO gurus were insisting that you need to “Digg” virtually everything and that it was the be all and end all of SEO. Unsurprisingly, these systems were very open to spammers and automation so did not have the initial traction that many thought they would do. However, with the new wave of social networking, there is now a “mass effect” – i.e. more genuine users are using these platforms, making the automated accounts very obvious and transparent. Initially, bookmarking was designed to be a way of you saving your favourite pages for reference on any machine – so you could “Stumble Upon” a site at home and find it from your work computer very easily. The new wave of bookmarking is a way of letting your contacts know about content, and this is much more valuable data for the search engines. You can look at the public profiles of your friends and contacts on most bookmarking websites and in doing so you can see what they like and what they are happy to recommend. Search engines can also see this, and the size of your contacts list allowing them to value the influence of any particular person placing a bookmark. This is human review – real people attaching a value to web pages and as such this information is a rich source of ranking signals for the search engines.

What you should be doing for maximum effect

Focus on fresh, quality content

Google knows that the world we live in is instant. 24 hour news channels, 24 hour working patterns and the amazingly quick flow of information mean that humans now want the very latest information, the newest of news and the quick fix. One of the latest innovations at Google is the “Fresh” update which attaches higher value to more recent content. Keep your quality high, but try wherever possible to publish information that relates to CURRENT news events, as quickly as possible.

Humans first!!!

We have been saying this for years, but now more than ever try to focus on the end user experience. If your site takes ages to load, has popups all over the place and is completely plastered with advertising, users are going to get very annoyed very quickly. Google knows what turns consumers off, so will penalise sites employing the tactics that people don’t like. Focus on ensuring your website loads quickly, and the actual content of each page is easily accessible.

Clai your content

Use the author rich snippets to show that you are the author of your work. Proving that there are real people at both ends of the chain helps to show Google that you care about your website. People buy from people, not business! Claim the credit for your knowledge and Google will reward you accordingly.

Forget Spamming

If you have been tempted by automated link building tricks and software, give it up – now! Google can figure these methods out so quickly it’s not funny. AT best you will see no benefit, at worst you could actually see your website dropped from the search results altogether.

Build Your Network

Develop and stick to a solid strategy for social networking. Build your network of contacts, engage with them and try to respond to their wishes. If your business sells cheese and people in your social network are complaining that a certain type of cheese is being withdrawn from the market, this is potentially a whole new avenue for income for your business. If you aren’t networked with the potential customers, you wont necessarily see the opportunities.

Social Media + Search Engines = Social Search

The launch of the +1 button and the Google Plus network are the most obvious steps in the last 12 months that Google is taking social seriously. Sometimes the social signals being gathered are very transparent – your contacts who have +1′d your posts, shared on Facebook and tweeted about your website and pages, but sometimes it is harder to determine exactly what has been happening because the people sharing your content aren’t actually in your immediate network. Google will still see these signals and give you the benefit for them, but these are harder for you to see and therefore harder to monitor.

In any given minute, the amount of FaceBook likes, shares and tweets is an eye watering number. The search engines have figured out how to leverage this landslide of data and to then use this information to modify the search rankings. The amount of work that must have gone into this integration tells you just how important this information is to the search companies. Bearing this in mind, the advent of social search is definitely the start of a long term trend.

5 Ways To Get More Social Signals

Now that we have established social signals are vital for search engine optimisation, the next step is to look at how you can start to trigger stronger social signals for your site. The 5 tips below should give you an excellent starting place:

  1. ASK!
    Chances are you already have a network of contacts. Asking them to +1 your web page or share your content on FaceBook is actually a really easy, normally very effective way to start the ball rolling. Not only this, as soon as they start doing this then THEIR contacts will see your website in front of them and may spontaneously repeat the action – this then puts you in front of THEIR contacts and so on…
  2. Reward
    Whether you do this directly by giving information away to people who tweet your link or like your page (there are numerous WordPress plugins that will automate this kind of reward system), or whether you run a competition try to encourage people to share your website with their network by offering them an incentive. You don’t normally have to offer very much to get a good response. One of the most effective campaigns I have seen took a twitter account to 20,000 followers in a week simply by offering a £20 Next voucher…and getting some key influencers to announce the competition.
  3. Engage
    Building a network is going to be VERY hard work without engaging with your audience. A conversation is a two way thing, so be sure to also respond to your followers/fans/connections when they ask questions, and try to follow up with discussions – if you ask what colour baseball cap your contacts like best, when somebody replies “blue” try asking them why. These conversations can be fun, but they can also help enlighten you to new opportunities for your business, and WILL ensure that when you announce new content or offers, these loyal followers are much more likely to re-tweet, share or +1 what you have just announced.
  4. Promote
    Similar to asking, don’t be afraid to ask for the social action. On virtually every article of this site you will see a sentence along the lines of “please share this content using the buttons available”. This takes a few seconds to write, but this call to action WILL generate a response.
  5. Integrate
    Make sure your website has the easiest possible ways in which your users can send a social signal on your behalf. On this website you will see to the left hand side a simple box with the icons for some social networks. Clicking them allows you to send this web page directly out to your contacts, and this simple way of allowing you to promote a website is actually one of the most effective – and definitely one of the most cost effective. When used in conjunction with the other tips above, it will really help maintain your social signals for each and every bit of content on your website.

I hope the above article has provided useful information for you. If it has, please do share by using one of the buttons to your left (see what I did there?), and by all means feel free to leave a comment below if you have anything to add or any questions to ask.

Tony is the Managing Director of Flosee, and also our lead developer. He has been building, modifying and beautifying websites since 2001 and is almost always glued to a keyboard in one way or another.

1 Response » to “Social Signals Explained”

  1. Paul from Print business cards says:

    Tony, I don’t know where to start!This article has been more than helpful to me!It has so much information that is really useful and relevant to me when it comes to social signals and search engines!Thank you for this wonderful presentation…
    Paul recently posted..18 Fantastic Business Ideas You Can Start on a BudgetMy Profile

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