Search engines have been around since the 1990s, and it didn’t take long before Search Engine Optimizers came on the scene. Today, there are more than 1 million people on LinkedIn with the word “SEO” in their profiles. By contrast, social media marketing is much newer. Facebook didn't even exist until 2004. While search engine and social media marketing may seem like completely different things, the two are actually interrelated and experts now almost overwhelmingly agree that you can’t have SEO without integrating social media too. What they don’t agree on, however, is how the two are related or how they should be used together as part of a comprehensive online marketing strategy.
Do Social Signals Count for SEO?
Let’s get this one out of the way quickly. In 2010, Google’s Matt Cutts released a video in which he said that Google used social signals in its algorithm. This created a frenzy amongst SEOs who started to emphasize social media as a SEO factor. There were even dozens of studies released which showed the apparent link between social media and SEO – like a post going viral and then starting to rank well in the SERPs.
Then, in 2014, Cutts took webmasters by surprise in a new announcement about whether social media sites are ranked differently by saying basically the complete opposite, that social media signals don’t count towards search engine rankings. To quote Cutts exactly:
Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But as far as doing special specific work to sort of say “you have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook”, to the best of my knowledge we don’t currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.
If we are going to take Cutts at his word, then social media isn’t a SEO factor. However, some people have interpreted Cutts’ words differently. At Kiss Metrics Chloe Mason Gray points out that Cutts did say Google crawls social sites just like it would any other site. Based on this, she theorizes that,
While the authority of a social account doesn’t impact search rank, links published on social media could be marked as credible back-links and thus influence a page’s rank.
Situations When Social Media Definitely Influences SEO
Let’s also not forget that Google’s algorithms now use personalization when bringing back results. In a nutshell, this means that if you are friends with Bill on Twitter, and Bill follows Blogger Sam, then Blogger Sam’s posts will show up in your search results.
Another way that social media probably influences SEO is engagement and traffic volume. If you get 5k visitors in one day, Google can see this. Those visitors might be coming from social media, email campaigns, or direct visits to your site. No matter where they are coming from, consistent traffic is a sign pointing towards your website's credibility. Rand Fishkin at Moz argues that this is a massive ranking factor, but too many SEOs are ignoring it completely. How massive? We can’t be completely sure. SEO isn’t as simple as the old days when you could count the number of backlinks you had and correlate them to increases in rankings. For people in competitive niches, traffic volume could make the different for outranking competitors.
Why You Need to Consider Social Media As Part of Your SEO Plan
Even if social signals count for nothing towards your rankings, you still need to incorporate social into your SEO plan. By focusing on social and SEO simultaneously, it ensures that you are thinking of users, and not just the search engines.
It is too easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of SEO, such as “which variation of this keyword gets more searches?” or “Is my anchor text properly optimized?” When you fall down this rabbit hole, you start creating content for search engine spiders and not the real people who will be using your content.
Every single search engine algorithm update is done to improve user experience. Think of your users, and you will improve your SEO.
How to Combine Social and SEO
Studies about what make a post go viral on social media usually bring up variations of these three factors: Click-worthy titles, Content which play to emotions, Use of photos.
1. Click-Worthy Titles
Instead of writing a bland SEO-friendly title like “How to do X”, you write the more social-media-friendly title of “5 Hacks Which Make X Easier.” You might not get to the #1 spot in the SERPs, but more users click on your title when they see it in the SERPs, thus boosting your CTR (and thus traffic and SEO).
2. Emotional Content
You write content which plays to emotions so users feel inclined to comment on the post. This improves SEO.
3. Photos in Posts
You make sure to add lots of great photos to the content because you know it will do better on social media. Photos encourage users to scroll through the entire article and stay on the site longer, which increases Time On Site and your SEO. Photos also give you an opportunity to include keywords in the ALT text. The Monsido platform lets you see if you are missing ALT text on any photos.
Balancing Social Media and SEO Marketing
It isn’t always possible to make every single post both social media and SEO friendly. Try as you might, it's doubtful people are going to share an article about hemorrhoid treatment or toilet clogs on social media!
Consider which source of traffic – social or search -- is more valuable to you and then craft content for that source. Chances are that you will need a blend of both social and SEO-friendly content to meet your goals. Remember the old business adage that “it costs more to get a new customer than keep an existing customer.” SEO content is what will get you new customers. Social content is what will help you keep up a relationship with those customers so they keep coming back.