The Truth About Social Media & SEO

If you ask two experts where social media falls in the SEO equation, you might get two very different answers—like these:

Expert A: “It’s all about social signals, which are like votes that add value to your social posts. If you tweet a link to your website and a celebrity with millions of fans retweets it, that’s a lot of social signals! Another social signal is the number of followers you have. Having more followers indicates greater social importance and earns you a higher search ranking.”

Expert B: “Social signals are baloney! Bah, humbug.”

So, who’s right? In 2010, Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam team, confirmed the first theory. For the next 3+ years, marketers scrambled to acquire as many social signals as possible—until earlier this year, when Cutts released another video basically saying, “Yeah, um, we gave up on that a long time ago.”

Confused yet? You’re not alone. Cutts’ second video flew somewhat under the radar, and many experts are still mistakenly preaching the power of social signals. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great if your post gets seen by that celebrity’s ten million fans; it just doesn’t directly affect your SERP placement.

So…what do we know?

  • Social signals used to be important.
  • They’re not important anymore.
  • Google currently treats social media pages just like any other page on the Internet.

So is all lost when it comes to using social media for SEO? Of course not!

Forget about Google.

That’s right; I said it. Forget about optimizing your social profiles for Google—and I don’t mean you should start optimizing for Bing or Yahoo instead. Forget the search engine giants completely for a minute.

As Neil Patel of QuickSprout writes, “Social is a search engine too.”

We don’t often think about it that way, but it couldn’t be more true. Consider how often you use social media as a search engine without even realizing it. When you want to read recent blog posts about a specific topic, where do you turn? Probably not to Google. You’re more likely to use Twitter, LinkedIn Pulse, or an RSS reader to find a current, on-topic post. Looking for a video? There’s a good chance you’ll search YouTube to find what you need. Curious about a professional in your industry? LinkedIn is your go-to site.

Social networks are not traditional search engines, but they can function in much the same way. This is why it’s crucial to optimize your social posts and profiles for internal search. On Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+, you can do this in part by using hashtags. On YouTube and Slideshare, you can tag your uploads with relevant keywords and write descriptions. It’s borderline tragic how many companies upload fantastic videos to YouTube but neglect to write keyword-rich descriptions so they can be found.

Okay, don’t completely forget about Google.

Because Google treats social media pages like any other web pages, so should you. Best practices vary a little from network to network, but here are a few ground rules to follow.

  1. Add social sharing icons to your website so others can share your content.
  2. Upload images with descriptive file names.
  3. Write keyword-rich bios for your “about” sections.
  4. Link to your website and other social profiles.
  5. When you post a link to Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+, a link preview is automatically generated. If the text that’s pulled in isn’t SEO-friendly, you have the option of changing it by clicking on it and typing whatever you want. We recently blogged about our September content theme, event marketing. Because the link preview text was SEO optimized, the link we posted to Facebook appears on Google when someone searches for Dreamforce 2014 events marketing

SEO is always changing, and as evidenced by the rise and fall of social signals, what works today might not work tomorrow. For now, as long as you understand how social networks’ internal search works and focus on providing good content, you won’t have to rely on any elusive signals or obscure gimmicks to be found. Do you have any other tips for using social media for SEO? We’d love to hear your thoughts!