We’ve all heard the hogwash that social media activity doesn’t improve SEO rankings. We also understand that Google itself contributed to this potential misconception. Back in 2014, Matt Cutts—then a Google executive—clarified Google’s position about social media activity, saying that it does not influence SEO rankings.
Since then, digital marketers near and far have treated his comments as the gospel of the impact of social media on SEO. Whether in digital marketing trade publications or forums, Cutts’ sentiment/clarification has served as the go-to source for clarity.
But did he tell the truth? Or did we fail to interpret him correctly?
First, watch and listen to what Cutt’s says in the now-infamous video, “Are pages from social media sites ranked differently?”.
He seems honest enough, right?
Yet discord remains because other evidence counters Cutts’ denial that social media activity has an impact on SEO. In 2018, a Hootsuite experiment determined that successful social media campaigns encourage higher search result rankings. The experiment displayed a solid trendline favoring increased SEO rankings on social media posts with higher social engagement. Even now, in 2020, the number of social media platforms is higher than ever.
The confusion over the SEO and social media relationship stymies SEO optimizers. The fact is, social media labor is hardly a trivial endeavor. It’s work (and lots of it). It’s another wing of your digital marketing business that requires energy, focus, and possibly financing.
Who wants to spend more money and more brainpower on a mere promise of improved search exposure?
Well, maybe we are looking at this wrong.
Let’s break that down.
The Impact of Social Media on SEO
It’s important to understand from the outset that although Google’s communications over its ranking factors feel more affable these days, they still remain dutifully protective over the machine’s nucleus.
Hence, no matter how friendly Google’s outreach seems, it remains an Exacto knife slicing precisely at definitive, purposeful lines that conceal information that might lead to search marketing fraud.
In other words, listen to Google execs and consider the provided nuggets, but keep the salt on hand.
Let’s consider the exact exchange between Cutts and a digital marketer named Ryan from Michigan.
“Are Facebook and Twitter signals part of the ranking algorithm? How much do they matter?”
First, Cutts notes that Facebook and Twitter both are crawlable web properties in equal capacity with the rest of the web. This implies that a link on Facebook could be a prompt to index a page. Clearly, using Google Console and appropriate site map application, a marketer can prompt a crawl by Google’s bots.
What Cutts means is that Facebook is no different than any other website. If you are linked on a website that gets crawled by Google bot, chances are, your link will experience a crawl.
So that’s definitely not saying that Facebook or social media fuel any added SEO benefits.
Maybe there’s more to the story
So what then did Cutts say in his answer that’s now become controversial marketing lore?
“But as far as doing any special work to say that 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 algorithm.
Let me talk a little bit about why not.
We have to crawl the web in order to find pages on those two web properties. And um, we’ve had at least one experience where we were blocked from crawling for about a month and a half. And so the idea of doing a lot of special engineering work to try to extract some data from web pages when we might get blocked from being able to crawl those web pages in the future is something where the engineers would be a little bit leary about doing that.
It’s also tricky because Google crawls the web and as we crawl the web, we are sampling the web at finite periods of time…we’re crawling and fetching a particular web page. And so if we’re fetching a particular web page we know what it said at one point in time but something on that page could change. Someone could change the relationship status or someone could block a follower. So, it would be a little unfortunate if we tried to extract some data from the pages that we crawled and we, later on, found out, that for example, a wife had blocked an abusive husband or something like that and just because we happened to crawl it at the exact moment when those two profiles were linked, we started to return pages we’d crawled.
So, because we are sampling an imperfect web, we have to worry a lot about identity when identity is already hard.”
Breaking Down Cutts’ Social Media and SEO Relationship
At first read (or listen), it sure feels as though Cutts drives home an ironclad SEO principle that Google does not algorithmically consider social signals in rankings.
It feels this way because it’s exactly what he said.
But when we consider anecdotal evidence and the Hootsuite research cited early, things seem murky.
They aren’t murky at all.
What Cutts stated and what evidence reveals aren’t mutually exclusive.
Cutts explicitly states that Google’s algorithm doesn’t leverage social signals for ranking purposes. Social signals are LIKEs, follows, comments, etc. He reasons that doing so exposes users to privacy risks and opens Google’s search ranking algorithm to unreliable data. Cutts mentions that a social network blocked Google’s bots (or so he implies).
He’s not wrong
In 2019, Apple blocked Google from running it’s internal iOS. This caused disruptions for Google, which Apple accused of being in violation of TOS. The debate of who’s right between two tech giants aside, the block is case and point for Cutts’ perceived concerns.
From all this, we can surmise that Cutts may well be telling the truth on the point that Google algorithms don’t consider social engagements, which are typically proprietary of the social network.
But does that also mean that social media doesn’t help SEO?
According to the fallout headlines that followed Cutts’ 2014 video, you’d certainly think so.
Here’s an article from the highly-followed SEO Roundtable published in 2016, two years following Cutts’ social media/SEO clarifications.
The headline accurately reflects Cutts’ statements over the matter, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.
No, Google algorithm doesn’t consider social media engagement when it ranks a website page.
But the question is, does social media success influence search rankings?
Social Media and SEO: We’re Missing The Forest For The Trees
Here’s the argument in live-action:
“Well, when a link I post on Facebook gets tons of shares, that article always seems to rank higher on Google.”
“That can’t be true, Matt Cutts says social media doesn’t influence SEO.”
“OK, I guess I’m just lucky a lot.”
Now’s not the time to buy a lottery ticket, unless you were already planning to do so. You probably aren’t ‘lucky’ if you’re highly shared or liked content performs better in Google search, it’s most likely just part of the web’s funnel of broad success.
Let’s use email newsletters as an example. Newsletter marketing is one of the most powerful ways to reach consumers.
Newsletter marketing compliments SEO because it promotes the sharing of content, which in turn, is the very core of backlink building.
Social Media Helps Promote SEO Backlinks
In SEO, you need high-quality, reader-worthy content. And you need high-authority backlinks. It’s a quandary, to say the least. You can pay top dollar for content, but good luck on the backlinks.
The idea is that powerful content synergistically promotes backlinks. If your article is the source or authority on a subject or offering thought leadership, other site owners may link to it. This is a natural SEO trigger for ranking, no one argues that. When quality content is backlinked from quality websites, you’ll likely rank higher in Google.
Let’s approach this in a common-sense way.
If you post your article, “Build a Garden That Provides Year-Round Food.” That article garners 5,500 shares in the first two days on Facebook.
That’s a viral article.
Two things happen in this scenario
- The article is exposed to web users at a high pace.
- The article is likely considered an authority, or high-quality, or worth sharing. When you combine both points 1 and 2, we realize that a great article is being seen by a massive audience. If it’s great, those who are exposed to it are more likely to share it. If it’s good and seen by lots of people, it’s likely to be shared even more.
It’s a perfect sharing storm. The increase in eyeballs accumulates more shares. That’s a data-driven synergy playing out. More shares = more exposure = more backlinks.
How do we define a ‘share?’
If an article is shared 5,000 times, wouldn’t it be safe to assume that it was also shared on blogs?
An SEO strategy doesn’t have to include social media, but the two platforms work rather harmoniously together, including in the reverse.
Let’s say your article ranks in the top spot of a meaningful keyword. You get 2,000 hits per day from that one ranking alone. If you have social media sharing, that can give people the opportunity to consistently share your page across their personal networks. This adds to the traffic bucket, but it also helps fuel more backlinks.
So Yes, Social Media Influences SEO Rankings
When we avoid sweeping interpretations of Matt Cutts’ 2014 statements regarding social media influences on SEO, we understand that aspects of the social media/SEO relationship certainly help encourage improved rankings. The Internet’s original interpretation of Cutts’ synopsis soured SEO marketers’ perspective on the social media space. But evidence and common sense certainly provide solid reasoning to include social media in a comprehensive SEO strategy.