Social Media and Search Engine Optimization

The search engines are constantly upgrading their algorithms with the purpose of surfacing web pages with links and other search engine optimization elements that are difficult to manipulate, as evidenced by Google's Panda update in early 2011 and the Penguin update a little over one year later. Due to the transparency of communications between companies and their followers/friends/fans on social media platforms, these algorithms are steadily increasing the weight and significance of links and their bearing on how web pages are ranked on the search engine results pages (SERPs).


For businesses, the shift of the search engine algorithms toward favoring links and other facets of SEO that come from social media sites necessitates an active presence on these platforms, whether the interfaces are translating into increased revenues, or not. The alternative would be to stay away from social media entirely and hope that the search engines' accelerating prioritization of SEO in their ranking algorithms doesn't affect hard earned visibility on the SERPs. Measures that a company could take as an alternate path to social media would include increasing the number of internet assets, redoubling article distribution, and auditing the company's website to ensure that it is properly optimized.


The problem with this alternate path is that these actions would most likely result in a diminishing returns scenario, even if the algorithm shift to social media oriented SEO wasn't already under way. The reason for these diminishing returns is that companies that are actively engaged in SEO have usually already targeted the best venues for links, blog posts, content, etc., meaning that they will see a lower return on their investment as their actions expand to less relevant and weaker sites. In fact, weaker sites and the links generated from them were the primary target of Google's previously mentioned Panda and Penguin updates.


With the search engines signaling their preference for social media generated SEO as well as their disdain for specific and traditional optimization practices, thefuture for high rankings on the search engines results pages rests in the wide and growing variety of social media platforms. While engagement on these platforms may not lead (at least immediately) to measurably increased revenues, the alternate will likely be a slow deterioration in search engine rankings accompanied by decreasing visibility, consumer traffic, and sales.

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  • User Experience and SEO

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    Prior to Google’s implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm in the second half of 2013, search engine optimization and delivering a positive user experience with published content were distinctly different practices. Despite Google’s mission to surface high value content, its algorithms were easily manipulated with SEO tricks that didn’t necessarily deliver the information that the search engine users were looking for. At the same time, content that delivered relevant information often earned lower rankings than poorly written articles that prioritized packing in keywords over adding value.

     

    Hand it to Google, the search engine has stayed true to its commitment to deliver improved user experiences and is now far less vulnerable to manipulative practices. Its ranking algorithm now factors a variety of signals that result from positive user experiences, including:        

            

            Links from authority sites – Content that contains valuable source material, topic-relevant information or delivers a positive user experience in general can earn links from authority sites to provide additional information or to be cited as a reference. These links carry an increasing amount of weight in the ranking algorithms due to the quasi-vetting process from originating authority sites. This is a completely different ranking methodology than the one which rewarded web pages that had thousands of spammy backlinks purchased for a few pennies each.       

            Social actions – When content is posted to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, user can elect to share that material with their friends and/or followers. Sharing or liking posted content is referred to as a social action, which is an indication that the content delivers a positive user experience, whether it’s entertaining, informative or a combination of the two. Steady and/or increasing social actions with specific web pages can then boost rankings due to the implied legitimacy of independent referrals.    

             Active and positive comment threads – Quality content draws engagement in the form of active commentary threads. Content that is generating shares and likes will also elicit commentary, with the actions reinforcing each other when being weighed by search algorithms. While these reinforcing actions are great for SEO campaigns, they are equally capable of driving higher rankings for negative content, such as news stories.    

     

    In today’s SEO campaigns, manipulating the algorithms has become increasingly difficult. This is due in part to the growing sophistication in algorithm methodology that can detect spammy links and content. It is also due to the evolution in the way people communicate and share information on the web. The paradigm change now forces SEO and content distribution campaigns to focus on the same primary goal; delivering a positive user experience. 

  • One SEO Change to Implement Now

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    As the sophistication of search algorithms continues to increase, search engines are improving their understanding of what their users are looking for with their inquiries. Prior to replacing its search methodology with the Hummingbird algorithm in 2013, search results typically showed results that had a high percentage of the same keywords included in users’ inquiries. While the pages that were returned based on keyword matches generally reflected some relevance to the search, there were also results that had nothing to do with the nature of the inquiry.

     

    Two of the primary reasons for these unrelated results were black hat techniques that were used to trick the early algorithms into granting high ratings, as well as words that were spelled the same but had different meanings, known as homonyms. An example of a homonym is the word “lead”, which can either be a noun as in the metal or a verb as in “to guide”. An inquiry such as “lead dog” could list sculptures of dogs made of the metal as well as dog teams in the Iditarod race. Refining the search to “what is a lead dog Iditarod” could still return mixed results. With the implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm, searches provided results based on the context of the inquiry, rather than trying to find pages with identical keywords.

     

    The change to contextual search, in addition to providing a higher percentage of relevant results for all users, was also influenced by the more conversational nature of inquiries from mobile device users. When voice commands are used, it’s more natural to ask a question than limiting inquiries to a few key words. As the search phrases became longer, keyword-based algorithms struggled to return listings that answered the questions that were being posed, which required follow-on searches and lead to a less than optimal user experience.

     

    For businesses that have not changed the foundation of their SEO initiatives to the new search methodology, previously high rankings are likely to start falling, if they haven’t already. The key to success in context-based search is to modify content so that it answers the questions posed verbally by mobile users. As a simple example, a searcher may pose the question “Where is a pizza place in Anytown?” Content that answers that question, which would earn a higher search listing, would include something like “Jack’s Pizza is located at 123 Main Street in Anytown.”

     

    As Google and the rest of the search engines try to deliver the best user experience possible, the focus is on eliminating listings that don’t deliver the answers sought by searchers. To that end, the listings that are presented will increasingly address the full context of inquiries with the delivery of specific answers. In this environment the SEO campaigns that are modified to answer questions, rather than match keywords to searches, will deliver website and storefront visits which will drive revenues.  

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