How Google Will Use Social Media with Organic Search

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On April 28, 2010, Ross Hudgens (basing on current and historical algorithm tendencies) wrote an article on SEOmoz outlining the possible ways that Google will interpret social media. Hudgens opened his article saying “It’s going to happen – Google will start interpreting the social link graphs to influence their organic search results.

Points Raised

According to Hudgens, Twitter is acting very much like the link exchanges of the pre-Twitter era, except that it’s doing so in a dramatically higher volume. Additionally, the kinds of links being shared on Twitter are the same as they were during the hayday of blogs and news aggregators. Hudgens thinks that because of this:

[…] any distribution of the non-social (see: payday loans, insurance, etc) is unusual, and large link spikes or unusual link profiles will be quickly noticed and devalued, if not de-indexed for their transgressions.

According to Hudgens, for these exact reasons, SEO will mostly remain unchanged. Especially businesses that will remain unfriendly to conversation (i.e., social interaction) to which social media integration will mean little to nothing.

However, Hudgens notes:

[...] in verticals where content is king, linkbait is the meal of choice and “the conversation” means everything, the Twitter world will have to be taken very seriously.

With regards to trust factor, Hudgens thinks that factors (similar to those Google is using on sites/pages) will come into play to leverage profile trust and how it will impact the SERPs. Hudgens enumerates his “candidates” as follows:

  • Follower count -  Things like follower interaction & the followed-to-following count of its followers can be weighed to determine how trustworthy the web has determined this Twitter account to be.
  • Use of @accountname – The volume of @accountname appearances (resulting from unsolicited user interactions or retweets of content) on Twitter is a strong indicator of trust. Even if someone is making lots of cold interactions with fake followers to increase this, it will take some sort of trust for the act to be reciprocated. The ratio and volume of these occurrences can be seen as strong indicators of account trust.
  • Account age and “confirmed” accounts – Twitter, working with Google, could automatically provide trust to those accounts Twitter deems as “confirmed accounts”, as they will often receive immediate following spikes that are unnatural to other users. For those that have to grind to accumulate real following counts, age seems like something that may be a bigger part of a natural trust growth cycle more than the actual account date of birth itself.
  • Account theme – People tweet and discuss about certain things more than others. Sooner or later, this could lead profiles into developing a theme.

But why would Google do this? Hudgens sees news aggregation as the possible primary reason.

According to Hudgens, the problem with the current system is that media outlets, which have strangleholds on news aggregation, are not always the most topical, relevant result for the engines.

Hudgens says that these outlets are mostly ranked based on their domain authority and on-page SEO rather than which one is actually the best article. Twitter can help Google greatly in picking out the authority article for a news piece through retweets and trusted dissemination of the information.

Hudgens also mentions something similar to what Fishkin have earlier raised regarding Twitter cannibalizing blogging, saying that bloggers are not linking out as much as they did before and that people are dropping socially-worthy pieces on their Twitter feeds and sharing on Facebook. Google, according to Hudgens, have to incorporate these new psychological linking tendencies into the SERPS to get a true appropriation of how their users view the web.

Another thing is Facebook’s open graph. The new, publicly interpretable “like” numbers can be translated as votes of trust in pretty much the same way as the earlier mentioned Twitter metrics. However, Hudgens raised two possible reasons why this probably won’t happen (at least not any time soon). One is that Google sees Facebook as a threat. And, along with that, it seems to be against the privacy dilemmas the graph presents.

Two is that this is a brand new announcement, and that makes implementation of data of this sort likely to be much further away from ever being implemented.

NoFollow and Title Tags

In his article dated November 10, 2010, Tad Miller quoted Googler John Mu as saying:

Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times, depending on what our algorithms find. While we initially rolled out this change earlier this year, the web changes, sites change, and with that, our algorithms will continually adapt to the current state on the web, on those sites.

From this, Miller noted that if Google’s search algorithms were to adapt to the way the web changes, it makes sense that Google would try to incorporate the massive number of shared, but nofollowed links on Twitter and Facebook into their algorithm.

With regards to the use of shortened URLs on Twitter, Miller noted that Google has been found to be substituting/recognizing the page title tags of shared shortened links as anchor text for real time search.

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To quote Miller:

By utilizing the Title Tag as the link’s Anchor Text Google has found some text to associate with the link, just like it would with “dofollow” anchor text that would pass on Page Rank.  Title Tags have always been important for SEO from a Content Perspective, if shared shortened links from Twitter ever do count in an algorithm Title Tags become doubly important as both links and content.

This, Miller says, is very much like what Facebook does with links—that it transforms the shared link into an anchor text link of the page’s title tag.

Speaking of Facebook, Miller mentions noticing something strange with regards to links they were getting from Facebook:

We have really been noticing Facebook links coming through our clients Link Data in Google Webmaster Tools from individuals non-private pages and from company pages in very large numbers of late.  Strangely, the URLs that Google is finding these links on are ALL Facebook links from foreign countries.  None of them are for a plain old “facebook.com” URL.  We have seen Facebook-Cyprus, Facebook-Wales and Facebook-Korea.  Why the end around to get to the data?  I have no idea.[…]

What encourages me that the nofollow attribute isn’t mattering as much as it used to to Google is that I’m seeing my clients Title Tags show up in Google Webmaster Tools in the Anchor Text Section in fairly large numbers.  Many of those Title Tags are very distinct phrases that no one would intentionally make anchor text, so we are pretty sure that they are coming from Facebook, Twitter and other social bookmarks.

For this, Miller advises that title tags be chosen carefully and that keywords must be used in them.

Finally, Confirmation

On December 1, 2010, Search Engine Land editor-in-chief Danny Sullivan came out with an article that exposed some details regarding which social signals are affecting SERP rankings.

According to Sullivan, both Google and Bing have told him that who you are as a person on Twitter can impact how well a page does in regular web search. Authoritative people on Twitter lend their authority to pages they tweet.

As for Facebook, the two search giants have differing answers. Bing says it doesn’t try to calculate someone’s authority while Google, on the other hand, says it does, in some limited cases.

With regards to the nofollow attribute, both search engines confirm that the links that are going through Twitter’s “firehose” of data (to them) do not carry the nofollow attributes.

According to Bing, instead of the nofollow attribute, they take into consideration how often a link has been tweeted or retweeted, as well as the authority of the Twitter users that shared the link. Google, on the other hand, says that they use the data only in limited situations, not for all of general Web search.

The Questions (and the Answers)

Following are the questions Sullivan sent over to the search giants, along with their responses.

  • If an article is retweeted or referenced much in Twitter, do you count that as a signal outside of finding any non-nofollowed links that may naturally result from it?

Bing: We do look at the social authority of a user. We look at how many people you follow, how many follow you, and this can add a little weight to a listing in regular search results. It carries much more weight in Bing Social Search, where tweets from more authoritative people will flow to the top when best match relevancy is used.

Google: Yes, we do use it as a signal. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article.

  • Do you try to calculate the authority of someone who tweets that might be assigned to their Twitter page. Do you try to “know,” if you will, who they are?

Bing: Yes. We do calculate the authority of someone who tweets. For known public figures or publishers, we do associate them with who they are. (For example, query for Danny Sullivan)

Google: Yes we do compute and use author quality. We don’t know who anyone is in real life :-)

  • Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who tweets it?

Bing: Yes.

Google: Yes we do use this as a signal, especially in the “Top links” section [of Google Realtime Search]. Author authority is independent of PageRank, but it is currently only used in limited situations in ordinary web search.

  • Do you track links shared within Facebook, either through personal walls or fan pages?

Bing: Yes. We look at links shared that are marked as “Everyone,” and links shared from Facebook fan pages.

Google: We treat links shared on Facebook fan pages the same as we treat tweeted links. We have no personal wall data from Facebook.

  • Do you try to calculate the authority of someone on Facebook, either say via their personal wall or their fan page.

Bing: We don’t do this on Facebook. On Facebook, we only get what’s public, only updates and things you’ve posted to everyone as viewable. We don’t get things only shared with friends, so don’t know how authoritative you are on Facebook. There isn’t the whole convenient retweet mechanism we see on Twitter.

We do see valuable content shared by Facebook users, even though we only get what’s public.  For example when Gary Coleman died we saw a video from Different Strokes, saying his favorite line “what ya talk’in ’bout Willis” gain popularity.  It happened to be what a lot of people are sharing on the day he passed away.

Google: Again, the treatment is the same as for Twitter. And we have no personal wall data from Facebook.

  • Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who shared it on Facebook?

Bing: We can tell if something is of quality on Facbook by leveraging Twitter. If the same link is shared in both places, it’s more likely to be legitimate.

Google: Same as question 5.

  • And just to be really clear, the new Facebook data is not yet being used in ordinary web search, right? (asked only of Bing, because it was only relevant to them)

No.

From the interview, Sullivan concluded that retweets is the new link building.

Sullivan advises:

Get your page mentioned in tweets by authoritative people, and that can help your ranking in regular search results, to a degree.

More Speculations

As you probably already know, the search giants, most especially Google, do not reveal much of anything to anybody regarding its search engine (or anything, for that matter). And just like what has happened so many times in the past, the answers that Danny Sullivan got only led to more guesses and speculations.

Immediately following Sullivan’s article, Rand Fishkin came out with another article where he laid out his guesses/speculations about how Bing and Google are determining what to rank on their SERPs, as well as the signals they are using to determine and establish Author/Social Authority.

Sullivan identifies the following as the things that the search giants are possibly looking at in determining a page’s ranking:

1)   Diversity of Sources – having 50 tweets of a link from one account is not nearly as valuable as 50 tweets from 50 unique accounts.

2)   Timing – links that are shared shortly after an RSS feed first publishes a story may be indicative of Query Deserves Freshness (QDF), but tweets/shares of older pieces could be seen as more indicative of lasting value and interest (rather than just sharing what’s new).

3)   Surrounding Content – the message(s) accompanying the link may give the engines substantive information about their potential relevance and topic; it could also take the place of anchor texts, particularly on Twitter.

4)   Engagement Level – the quantity of clicks, retweets, likes, etc. could impact how much weight is given to the link.

As for the possible factors for determining Author/Social Authority:

  • Quantity of Friends/Followers – Like links, according to Sullivan, it’s likely the case that having more friends/followers is better. However, he warns that low quality bots and inauthentic accounts are likely to be filtered. And Sullivan thinks that due to the challenges that bots and inauthentic accounts will be facing in acquiring followers/friends, the search engines will probably have an easier time spotting them than they do in weeding out spammy links.
  • Importance of Friends/Followers – Again, just like links. If you are hounded by high “authority” followers, it can send a very good signal about yourself.
  • Analysis of Friends/Followers Ratios – Much like the engines’ analysis of the editorial nature of links, consideration of whether a social user is engaging in following/follower behavior purely out of reciprocity versus true interest and engagement may be part of authority scoring. For example, if you have 100,000 followers and you follow 99,000 of them, and the engagement between you and your followers is slim, you’re likely not going to be recognized as authoritative as the owner of an account with 1,000 followers who are constantly engaged, retweeting, liking, sharing, etc.
  • Topic Focus (Theme) / Relevance – The consistency or patterns between a person’s sharing behaviors could also be a consideration (using topic analysis and patterns in the sources of shared/tweeted links, etc.). Being an “authority” could even be subject-specific. For example, if a prominent SEO tweets links to celebrity news, it will have less of an impact as compared to when that person tweets links to a web marketing resource.
  • Association Bias – Google and Bing probably has the ability to associate social authors with the sites/domains they’re part of and those that they’re independent from (Google Profiles comes to mind here).

 

As you can see, social media sites like Facebook & Twitter (among others) really do play an active role in organic search engine results and that trend is on the rise. No one can predict the future, but it seems likely that the major search engines will continue to move in this direction.

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