Are social signals ever going to usurp links

There has been a lot of noise over the last couple of weeks regarding Google Patents such as those on dynamic linking, which have prompted conversations on whether SEO as we know it is due for a significant change. In particular the advent of social media is one that many experts in the sector have suggested is likely to see greater infliltration into the mainstream algorithm, particularly should Google start to look at other factors to replace the existing heavily link centric framework.

There is no doubting that social media already has a significant place within SEO, and the search engines themselves. Take a look at many results – particularly in logged in accounts – and you will notice features such as ‘Social Circle’ included within your search results – and allowing peers and friends to potentially recommend and influence your decisions based on previous behaviour. This adds a new layer of complexity to many search campaigns, and a new consideration in terms of channel choice and integration. Further to this Real-time search, which includes data from social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Friendfeed has also seen a lot of exposure over certain months, and looks a feature permanently included within the organic search results.

That said, is such integration enough to be see more significant integration into the search results themselves in terms of being factored into the algorithm itself.

I would suggest not at this stage, particularly given the early nature of many of these social networks – and there are a couple of reasons for this:

Secondary Influence
Many of these social factors are taken from recorded behaviour, such as that from logged in Google Accounts. Now if any of you are as bad as I am – many of you will not log yourself out of your Google Account to hand the computer over to your wife/husband, children etc. With the best will in the world – my children tend to look at Moodle, Number Crew, Postman Pat and Peppa Pig, none of which ever should be factored into any sort of behavioural study. Now I am one person however magnify that (as I can’t imagine I am alone in that scenario) and you have a potential disruptive factor in any evaluation.

Further to the point above, the factor of noise could also offer a significant disruption as regards being a significant part of any ranking factor. To fully integrate such a feature into the mainstream serps would be a huge technological role, in order to fully understand and compute the numerous factors which would need to be integrated into this to make it work. Further to that there are a number of secondary factors which would need to be fully considered and evaluated such as retweets on Twitter, Likes on Facebook etc etc and fully integrate into any such framework. I would suggest we are still a fair while away from such factors. Such factors should eb considered contributory imo – however I personally wouldn’t put my hat on any such factors as a primary day to day mainstream algorithmic factor.

Here today, gone tomorrow
I think one think we do need to bear in mind is the changeable nature of social media. Four years ago, no one would have heard of Twitter and most of us would have been on MySpace. Move forward four years and Facebook rules the roost –and new competitors are catching up fast such as Twitter and 4sq. Social Media is not a constant, it is constantly in flux – and as such to be an integral part of any organic search ranking factor – this flux would need to be taken into account. Further to this – what is more powerful. Is a RT from Twitter less powerful than a like from facebook? Is a login from 4sq more authorative than factoring in data from other sources such as Twitter or Facebook? Take this a step further – move forward 6 months – and is this still the case ?

I would also add, that whilst many of us savvy online marketers are on social networks, many consumers and organisations are yet to embrace the social media revolution. The likelihood of something as intertwined with the web as a link being replaced with social media itself which is fairly new to online sphere is incomprehensible, and would be like someone like British Airways developing a super car.

That from a technical factor is an absolute administrative and technical nightmare and one which I honestly believe is likely to restrict any significant reliance Google place on social media as a direct replacement for links?

As with linkage, social media is wide open to exploitation and that is only likely to become more expansive if the search engines decided to rely more on this over and above linkage as a factor within its algorithm. Take for example Twitter. Twitter is already a very automated channel – with many accounts using automation in various guises such as autofollows, autoposts or the like. As such, evaluating and determining authority is not the easiest thing to do – as simply using the user with the highest following may not by symbolic of true authority, and similarly with number of retweets. This scenario alone has similar undertones to the problems currently associated with linkage.

As such this would merely replace one set of problems with another – and ultimately that is not what Google or the search engines want .

However it is the final point which I would suggest would really be the determining factor with any such reliance on social media as a mainstay factor. Links are a currency anybody can use, and Google can to a certain extent control – by differentiating the criteria by which it determines what is a good link and what is a bad one.

Moving any such reliance into third parties is likely to leave Google exposed to a certain extent , and not in control of what – and what not to index, validate and authorise. For an organisation such as Google this would present significant cultural issues particularly given the amount of resource dedicated to factors such as linearization, segmentation and the like. Links to a certain extent is what makes Google Google and moving away from this would be a massive step into the abyss something I doubt Google would ever do. Google is all about control – so why hand over any control to anyone outside of that inner circle, after all many of these social media channels are competitors more than allies.

Final Note
So whilst social networking may rule the amount of time we spend online , I would suggest it is likely to be a while before Google itself relies heavily on such data for long term ranking. Instead I can see them continuing to integrate the engine with various social media formats . continuing with the acquisition programme that they have undertaken and developing their social media offering (similarly to how Facebook are developing their search product). Simply because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should (something I would add is symbolic of many things to do with social media – but that is another post…)

About Peter Young

Peter has been around the industry for a while now, having previously headed up both search and SEO operations at Connectpoint (now Amaze), Mediavest, Brilliant Media and now Search & Social Director for Mediacom.

9 thoughts on “Are social signals ever going to usurp links

  1. Great article Pete, agree with you all the way. Well, nearly all the way – one caveat re: flux, I get the sense that the social media landscape is coagulating around a handful of sites, most notably Facebook and Twitter. I think the severe state of flux of recent years was due to the novelty of the social media space, and that now users are ‘native’ to social media there will be far fewer big upsets and a handful of sites will come to dominate it.

  2. Completely agree with your last point, however I think that handful of sites has always existed however that landscape tends to be more changeable than that of search for example. Whilst I would agree that I think we will see some consolidation in the social media space – I think by its very nature we will see this evolve and migrate significantly in the coming months/years – something I don’t think will happen for the foreseable future with the search engines.

  3. As each algo update goes by, I’m sure Google is slowly moving away from the weighting given to links. So where else will they look for signals…Facbook, Twitter etc is the logical place.

  4. Hi Gareth – Thanks for commenting

    However how far do they utilise that data
    How much do you rely on that data?

    Putting your eggs in one basket – never mind somebody elses basket at that seems a risky strategy to me . So integrating new factors into their algorithm – probably – but moving away from links I am not so sure!

  5. I don’t think social signals will ever usurp links from an organic ranking point of view but instead they will grow in their supporting influence. The widespread use of google bombing over the years has left the big G with a weak point in their algo – essentially a large enough link budget could compensate for a poor site structure and poorly maintained content for all but the most competitive of search terms. What will be worth more in SEO terms; a Facebook link or a twitter citation?

    I think this depends on the reach (social credibility), quantity (of output), range (of content), relevance (lifetime and temporal), originality and subsequent level of perceived authority of social media accounts by Google. The main problem I have with Social is that it is so much easier to set up and automate thousands of twitter profiles or Facebook pages than it is to set up, host, build (properly!) and automate content creation for websites. This coupled with the fact that social is very much still an emerging form of web asset when compared to domains of old. Where is the reinforcement of authority or longevity? Without a reliance on links (link juice passed and link age) an algo predominantly reliant on Social signals will produce a web full of temporary authorities which cannot be a sensible direction to steer the search world towards.

    Maybe I’m being overly sceptical, I don’t know but if you drop the marketing brain for a second and look at this logically about how this would be a step forward in the evolution of the web and how we are presented with content it doesn’t make good business sense for Google. They are simply replacing one untouchable pot of revenue (SEO) with another (Social Media Marketing). Everything Google does facilitates an increase in their bottom line – either by introducing a new revenue stream or by maximising existing sources. Just my 2 cents.

  6. I agree with @Chris above. I don’t think social will ever replace links (maybe “ever” is a strong word)… Sure, social signals will creep into the algo. But not in a strong way.

    My main argument is one of motivation. In other words: Why would Google change? They are clearly the market leader. I don’t see them needing a strong change. They are making plenty of money with things the way they are. They are amazingly good at sorting the good links from the bad. They seem to have a good thing going 😉

  7. Page Rank (and Hits prior to Google) were link analysis based algorithms. The main reason why Link Analysis was so successful becasue it solved authority and relevancy issue …Anchor Text reliance was significant factor for the inital algo’s as it solved the authority issue but was not biased(not spammed) factor then (1998 and few years that followed), however Web has been evolving and emerging ontologies esp in Social media and (web 2.0 and now ith cloud computing) can now be a factor(but definately social media signals is not the only factor) in relevancy.

    Web Graph has evolved and is evolving, neither just pure link based algorithms nor Social Media ontology on web graph can establish relevancy and authority – but now with spam-ability of Anchor text – it alone cannot solve authority issue , the emerging ontology from social graphs can indicate authority to an extent but will (or rather should not be the only factor), also how SE use these emerging ontologies from Social Graph will be very interesting for users from (results POV) but can be quite challenghing for SE’s…

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