Will social sharing be the new link building? Will link building go out of fashion in the near future? Will the strength of your social media presence determine your ranking in Google search results? Lots of question and muddied answers; although there is very little doubt that social media has started playing a huge role in SEO, whether it will overtake link building in terms of ranking factor is anybody’s guess. Or is it?
Let’s analyze some of the developments that have been taking place in the online world (read Google) vis-à-vis social media, its impact on SEO and whether we need to write the epitaph for links.
If there is any question about SEO and the importance of one ranking factor over another and what Google feels about certain SEO activities, all SEOs worth their salt want to know what Matt Cutts , Google’s head of its Webspam team has to say about it. Well according to Matt Cutts, links are still THE most important signal for search engine rankings as opposed to social signals. However, this hasn’t ended the debate between social signals vs. links and I can see no signs of this debate fizzling out in the near future, if anything it will heat up even more.
The Blame Squarely Rests with Penguin
The arrival of Penguin set the cat amongst the pigeons as far as link building was concerned. This update shifted the goal posts for SEO from quantity to quality. We, as SEOs, have always looked at SEO from the perspective of ‘the more the merrier’, when it comes to link building. The more the number of links that are pointed towards our site, the happier we are. But, the Penguin update changed all that. It laid the ground rules for quality link building and penalized all websites that had unnatural links pointing towards them. This article on Post-Penguin SEO Link Building – The Naked (URL) Truth talks about how link building has changed with the arrival of Penguin. Going through it will give a clearer picture about link building in the Post Penguin era.
What it will also help you do is understand that the debate about social media and the declining importance of link building found even more resonance with the arrival of the Penguin update. Google has always insisted on using social media to spread the word about your content. What this also does is it helps build natural links. By placing social media buttons on your website or blog pages, readers can easily share your posts/website content with their fans and followers. This helps build links naturally. And natural link building is what Penguin is all about.
This is why it’s my firm belief that it was Penguin that really heated up the debate about social media taking a lead over link building.
But After all Social Media is Helping Build Links……
Here’s the confusion. At one end of the spectrum we are actually using social media to build links and then debating whether link building is an SEO activity fast nearing its sell by date. Does this mean link building is alive and kicking and social media shouldn’t get the importance it deserves? Not quite, you see, by using social media, you aren’t “building” links, what you are actually doing is “attracting links”. Yes, you are persuading people to share the links to your online content, you aren’t actively soliciting links; what you are doing is allowing quality link juice to build naturally. You have put in place a series of events and are now watching from the sidelines.
But this still is all about links isn’t it?
No it isn’t, as I mentioned earlier “at one end of the spectrum”, we still have to look at the other end. The use of social media isn’t limited to attracting natural links; in fact attracting inbound links is an outcome of a solid and active social media presence. By participating in various social media activities, you are allowing your brand to get the visibility it needs and the more its visibility the more links it will attract.
You just can’t get away from links can you? No you can’t.
Thinking beyond Links
There is something bigger at work here. Social media is allowing businesses and their websites improve credibility. There are plenty of businesses that are using their social media presence to improve customer service. We are already seeing increasing incidences where prospective and existing customers are tweeting queries and they get an answering tweet in return. Products and services support is now being offered through the Facebook page of a company; all this goes on to build a more personal connection with the brand.
Social Media, Brand Building and Rankings on Google
Social Media helps build your brand and through this brand building exercise it has an impact on your SEO and plays a role in improving your Google search results. Basically, the idea is to build trust in the minds of your target audience through the use of social media. This Forbes article on 6 Ways Brands Build Trust Through Social Media, is a very good read and explains how to create trust in the minds of your potential customers with the use of social media.
The foundation of a successful brand rests on customer retention and brand loyalty. And this in turn leads to positive reviews on sites like Yelp, Google+ Local etc. There is absolutely no doubt that your website traffic will see a boost on account of the positive reviews written about it. What’s more, reviews give a boost to your local SEO efforts as well. It is my firm belief that the number of positive reviews that your website attracts also plays a role in its national rankings; of course the extent of importance given to reviews in Google’s national search rankings is not very clear.
Something else that an active presence on social media allows you to do is reduce the bounce rate of your website. Now, there is a debate on whether an increased bounce rate affects SEO rankings or not, but there is very little doubt that a decrease in bounce rate is an indication that the site has high quality content, which incidentally is a ranking factor. Two other rankings factors are the number of repeat visits to the site and the time spent on the site. Both ranking factors are given a fillip by social media. By sharing quality content/information with your fans and followers on social media, you are essentially tempting them to spend more time on your site.
This gives you an idea on how brand building through social media offers SEO benefits, and this has nothing to do with link building.
Now that you have gone through all this information, can we analyze it? I know there are plenty of ifs and buts that make a proper analysis difficult but the fact is that it is clearly established Google is now going to judge website’s relevancy from the quality of the links rather than their quantity; where the links are from and the authority of that site will determine the value of your link juice and its contribution towards a high ranking on Google’s SERPs.
Something else that is fairly evident is that social signals are playing a role in Google SERPs. So, instead of debating whether social media will steal a march over link building, why not combine the two, to ensure that that your website gets the ranking and the authority it deserves.
But, there is another element that we haven’t discussed and which impacts your search strategy, and this element is called the ‘influencers’. These are opinion makers and brand advocates in your niche whose word is trusted by their followers. You can also call these influencers people with a high amount of social authority and who have a loyal audience. By adding them to your search engine marketing strategy, you essentially are ensuring that the awareness about your brand spreads rapidly across social media.
Visibility in today’s world is only possible if it’s powered by relevancy and authority. This is why an equation – Social signals + Link Building = Authoritative Visibility make perfect sense. What this also brings to the fore is that the combined power of link building and social media is necessary to build visibility that is credible and has authority.
A whole new way of looking at SEO
Social Media is not going to be the be all and end all of all things SEO in the near future. Link building will continue playing a prominent role in all SEO campaigns but what cannot be denied is that social media will continue to impact the way we go about performing certain SEO activities. The emergence of social media has allowed us to build a respected brand using various SEO strategies.
A few years back, nobody really thought of building brand respectability through SEO. The focus was only on improving the visibility of the brand. But, the popularity of social media and the increasing number of active users on it has changed the dynamics of SEO. It is now possible to give your brand respectability through your conduct on social media and aligning your social media presence with your SEO efforts.
This is essentially a giant leap forward in brand building. The biggest brands are now being marketed over social media platforms and even traditional marketers are recognizing the importance of aligning their social media marketing efforts with that of SEO. This is something that was unimaginable a few years ago.
Don’t ignore one for the other
This shouldn’t be an either you are with us or you are against us kind of debate. Both link building and social media have their place in the scheme of things when it comes to Google search results. You can’t choose to go with one and ignore the other. This will be committing hara-kiri.
If you are a business and you have doubts in your mind because of this debate, it’s advisable that you read up more on it and finally when you have some idea in your mind about both these activities, consult an expert. I am reasonably sure that no SEO or social media expert is going to advise you to go the whole hog with either link building or social media.
The fact of the matter is that nobody is really sure where we are headed. All we can do is make some assumptions and predictions based on Google’s algorithmic updates to get an idea where we are headed in terms of SEO. And here I mean SEO for Google. So far, there is absolutely no indication that Google considers social media more important than link building. If at all, it actually keeps saying there is no taking away the importance of link building.
So, what do you do?
Don’t do anything special. Use both social media and link building to improve your search rankings. It’s important not to take sides in this debate. You will find that even the most vocal supporters of social media aren’t abandoning link building and at the other end of the spectrum, those who are holding the flag for link building aren’t ignoring social media.
When it comes to online marketing, it’s important to have the best of both worlds, until and unless something happens that tells you in no uncertain terms that yes, use only social media for getting a high rank on Google SERPs.