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No one outside search engines like Google and Bing definitively knows how their ranking algorithms work. In fact, an entire industry of search engine optimization (SEO) has emerged in the last 20 years to figure out what search engines do behind the scenes and how they can use this information to help clients rank as high as possible. It’s a never-ending job rife with speculation: According to this Google algorithm update tracker from SEO software firm Moz, the algorithm has had nearly 200 major confirmed and unconfirmed updates since 2000.
The relationship between social media and SEO is a perfect example of how search engines keep their cards close to their chest, leaving breadcrumbs for us to follow in order to make our own logical conclusions.
In 2010, Search Engine Land reported Google uses the links shared on Twitter and Facebook as a ranking signal. Shortly thereafter, Google Webmasters posted a video featuring Matt Cutts, who was head of Google’s webspam team at the time, confirming the news. Four years later, Cutts clarified Google treats Facebook and Twitter pages “like any other pages in our web index,” and pointed to what he called the correlation between links on a social media platform like Facebook and webpages that rank well — not causation.
“It’s probably that there’s something really awesome, and because there’s something awesome, then it gets a lot of likes on Facebook and a lot of people decide to link to it,” Cutts said. “That’s the sort of thing where the better the content you make, the more people are to like it not only in Google, but in Twitter and Facebook as well.”
And basically, ever since, we’ve been left with this sense that social media helps SEO, but it’s not entirely clear how exactly. A 2018 study from social media management platform Hootsuite confirms this. In a test of its own blog posts, Hootsuite found the articles it posted on Twitter and then boosted with a budget of $100 apiece saw a 22% increase in overall search visibility over those that were not shared or promoted.
In a piece on Forbes earlier this year, Alex Membrillo, CEO of digital marketing agency Cardinal, said to think of social media as a content amplifier. “If you're churning out killer content that people are engaging with on social media — content that is being shared, liked, commented on and clicked on — then you're getting more eyes on your content and brand, more people to your site and potentially more backlinks as a result,” he wrote. “With these kinds of results, the technical connection between your social media activity and SEO won't matter so much — both will be healthy and thriving.”
Here's a closer look at the main ways in which social media helps SEO.
Relevant and authoritative backlinks remain one of the most important ranking signals for search engines in 2020. And, as this Search Engine Journal post points out, the more shares you have on social media, the more opportunities there are for users to not only see your content, but to link to it. However, before anyone will share or link to your content, you have to have good content. Or “awesome” content, as Cutts put it. That’s where it starts: Awesome content yields shares, which yields links, which yields better rankings.
For more on how social media helps SEO:
According to social media management platform Buffer, Facebook has 2.2 billion monthly active users (MAUs). YouTube has 1.9 billion MAUs. Instagram has 1 billion. TikTok has 500 million.
Not every platform is right for every brand and you certainly shouldn’t try to be everything to everyone. At the same time, the sizable audiences on each of these networks offer opportunities for brand exposure and relationship-building. And, as Search Engine Journal notes, by building brand awareness — and your audience — in the right channels, you’re increasing the odds those users will click on your content when they see it in search results. That better click-through rate ultimately translates to better rankings.
By building out your social media presence on relevant channels and connecting with consumers, you’re also increasing the likelihood that those consumers will search for your brand name, which Search Engine Journal notes can help your brand rank for related non-branded keywords.
That’s because searches for a brand name and a product or service help search engines understand what users want. If users are searching for a given product or service and then clicking on content from your brand and not bouncing, that search engine knows a particular page is relevant to future searches for that product or service as well and it will rank higher.
For more on how to build a robust SEO strategy:
Search engines don’t care how many shares a post gets, but, as this Neil Patel post points out, social media profiles are often in the top results for branded searches. Remember: Google itself says its ranking systems are designed to “sort through hundreds of billions of webpages in our Search index to find the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second, and present them in a way that helps you find what you’re looking for.” And so, naturally, search engines will rank content a brand produces on its own social media channels higher for brand-specific searches.
At the end of the day, your focus should not be posting to social media to boost search rankings. Instead, just create great content. In the end, that’s what search engines care about most. And by creating unique content consumers find valuable and engage with, you’ll not only see better search rankings, you’ll likely see more social media engagement as well.
And when we’re talking about content, don’t forget video. Remember YouTube has 1.9 billion MAUs and is a popular search engine in and of itself. Plus, brand videos can yield links and may themselves rank in the search engine results pages (SERPs) for branded queries. Membrillo recommends publishing videos with a regular cadence — and, of course, optimizing those videos so they can be easily found as search engines have increased the value of video content in their algorithms.
“Not only will the search engines crawl your video content for organic search results, but your content's visibility on YouTube itself can also help indirectly drive traffic and rankings,” he added. “Plus, you can add links back to your site within your videos or in the meta description so that SEO traffic captured by the video itself can actually lead to clicks through to your site.”
But, again, the secret is good content, which boosts domain authority and links, which actually do help your brand rank higher. As Search Engine Journal put it, “Even if social media isn’t a direct Google ranking factor, it is one of the best ways to promote content and be found online. Which is, ultimately, what SEO is all about.”
For more on the different types of content you can incorporate into your social media strategies:
If you want to get started on your holiday SEO strategy, we've got you covered. Read more here.
Originally published on August 3rd, 2020, last updated on June 16th, 2022.