Research Shows Social Shares Impact Search Results

Research Shows Social Shares Impact Search Results

By: Shelly Kramer
July 10, 2012

Social sharing influences searchThere’s a new search sheriff in town. In the aftermath of the Panda/Penguin search algorithms, social shares are now more important than keywords. The data is proving it. In a recent comprehensive study of UK Google ranking factors by search analytics firm Searchmetrics, this was one of the key takeaways.

The study collected data from February to March 2012 from a basis of 10,000 selected top keywords, 300,000 websites and millions of links, shares and tweets. The ranking sites’ content included: 248,603,582 Facebook comments, 2 billion shares and 7 billion likes. The goal was simple: Which factors are relevant today for a prime ranking in Google search results?

According to the data, social signals correlate highly with good rankings. Five of the top 6 signals are social: Facebook shares, Facebook total, Facebook comments, Facebook likes and tweets – with backlinks being the only non-social ranking factor in the top 6. Facebook, Twitter and Google+ now strongly correlate with high rankings in Google’s index.

How social shares influence search

Here are some other key highlights from the study by Searchmetrics:

Too much advertising can be harmful

Pages with too many advertisements have a harder time achieving high rankings. This makes sense, since earlier in 2012, Google announced that it would penalize sites displaying too many ads at the top of the page. The study found that both AdSense and Adblocks had a negative effect on Google SERP.

Backlinks are still SEO gold

Sure, social media is powerful—and getting more so. But backlinks will continue to be one of the most critical factors in achieving good SEO rankings. If you, like me, pay attention to SEO trends (and you should), keep an eye on what factors will influence the analysis of backlinks. For instance, Google currently favors a more natural link structure as opposed to the perfectly optimized keyword.

Big brands still get a free pass

In Searchmetrics’ report, the effect of brand power is not only obvious—it tends to turn ‘conventional’ SEO logic on its head. Strong brands rank in the top 5 even without perfectly conforming to page structures, which gives us the impression that title tags, headlines, etc. aren’t nearly as important to search results as it is to those in the SEO trenches.

Keyword domains still result in higher rankings

Domain names with keywords strongly correlate to higher search rankings, much more so than keywords in the rest of the URL. The title and the H1 headline, not so much—so little, in fact, that the Searchmetrics report concludes that they have little impact on ranking.

Google+: The jury’s still out

Google +1s saw a significant correlation of 0.37 with search rankings. Not so fast, Google+ fanatics—the data proved to be inconclusive due to low user numbers. According to Searchmetrics CTO and founder Marcus Tober: “We have not included this figure in the overview because we consider it to be too unreliable. This is because Google+ does not currently have enough users and the possibility of a +1 leading directly to changes in SERPs follows accordingly, since pages receive +1s in the order that they would already be placed without them. When Google+ has values that are stronger and more independent from SERPs, these values will also be included in the overview. That Google is trying to make Google+ an important player is indisputable and therefore SEOs should be sure to keep an eye on further developments.”

What does this mean for you as a marketer?

Pay attention. Plain and simple, this data shows that social shares have a significant impact on SEO traffic. And that means you want to ensure that the content you’re creating appeals to your audience and encourages them to share it as often and as widely as possible. Even though Searchmetrics cautions that social shares don’t guarantee a certain affect on search rankings, or that they’re even used by Google as signals, the data tells a much different story—and as us data lovers know, the numbers rarely lie.

The takeaway is this: social media is having an increasingly powerful impact on Google search. As a brand, your first step should be to create rich and thought leadership-quality content for your website. Second, distribute it throughout the social media channels you’ve developed. By housing rich, high-quality content on your website, you stand to gain from both social shares and the still relevant (and important) backlinks. But of course, you’re already doing this, right? Funny how sound digital marketing principles make for good SEO results, too.

Are you surprised that social shares are having a bigger impact on search results? And are you fine-tuning your digital strategy to keep pace with this SEO shift?

Lead image by C!… via Creative Commons

  • Great information Shelly, and so many takeaways. My company continues to focus on relevant, timely and original content creation as the main thrust of our efforts to continue ranking high on Google SERP’s and also share our content through established social channels (with the hopes of course that it will be shared by our community). What surprised me was the fact that keyword optimization for titles and H1 headlines had little to no effect on SEO – I had always thought these were part of the staples of an effective keyword SEO strategy.

    This is also a very timely post for me as I venture out to an SEO event this Thursday that will discuss the post Panda/Penguin Google SEO universe. Thanks!

  • Hi Shelly,

    The results here are definitely interesting, however I think it is a stretch to say social caused the improved ranking. In this case, it is just correlation, not actually causation. As far as correlation goes, it is a robust study, thankfully it includes some indications of statistical significance and degree of correlation. 

    Within the study, there are a number of points that are highly correlated with each other as well. For instance, there are five different social metrics, the majority of those metrics are likely correlated with each other. We also need to consider the strength of the correlation. Although it is statistically signfiicant, at 0.35, it isn’t a particularly strong correlation. If you look at a scatter charts with a correlation of 0.35, you will see highly variable results around a rough general trend. 

    So, is this useful? Yes. But I think we need to be careful saying social drives search until we have more controlled studies to base it on.

    Good food for thought for sure, thanks for sharing the study.

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  • Ross Quintana

    Good post, I think that we also have to consider that more social businesses may have better content as well and that can be an indicator of quality not just tied to better rankings. 

  • ShellyKramer

    I’m not sure, exactly, what that means, Ross. That some people will produce better content (yes, I agree), and as a result will be “seen” more? But that’s probably already true. Just not sure how to interpret your comment vis a vis the post about the new functionality as a whole … but then, I could just be having a moment.

  • Ross Quintana

    Hey Shelly, I am just saying that the connection between more social sharing and higher ranking may not be directly related to shares of content alone affecting the rank. It may be other factors that may not show up in statistics like the quality of the post and the reason it is being shared. 

    My point is that if two posts got shares 1000 times each they may not both rank higher because there are other factors impacting the ranking of them outside the social sharing that I am guessing are being calculated in. Qualifiers if you will. As search gets more complex I think single factor impacts are getting harder to find.

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  • Shelly Kramer

    Thanks, Ross. I agree with that, wholeheartedly. The point of the post wasn’t that social shares was the determinant, but rather that it does impact rankings. And that SEO and search are both important. Thanks for the clarification!

  • Shelly Kramer

    Thanks Eric. And your points are spot on. The point of this post isn’t to opine that social is more important than search. As someone who focuses on BOTH search and social, I know this isn’t the case. However, social does impact search. Whether its shares, +1s, etc., it does have an impact. My view is that search is important … and social contributes to rankings. Great content impacts that, well-established networks that share great content impact that, social impacts that. In fact, maybe that’s a better title … social impacts search, rather than social drives search …. :))

  • Shelly Kramer

    Thanks John,

    The creation of timely, relevant and original content, and sharing through channels that make sense, via networks you’ve built to support that … isn’t it lovely?

    I don’t really believe that titles and keywords don’t have an impact, although I’m seeing/hearing that in more than one place – and sometimes from Google. In fact, if I remember, I’ll share a video with you I watched recently on that.

    I think it’s ALL important. Search, the right keywords, the right tags, the right content strategy, distributing effectively via social — all that matters. I just thought this report was especially interesting based on the weight given to social. Time will, most definitely, tell. And that’s one of the many things I love about what we do!

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