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Social Signals as a Ranking Factor

Google pushes hundreds of small updates to its search algorithms every year, but it rarely takes the time to explain them. It made some exceptions for things like “mobilegeddon”, and it has often reiterated how important quality signals are when it comes to search too.

Perhaps the most interesting trend over the last few months, however, has been the move towards using social signals as an indicator of quality. Back in May, Google confirmed that it had changed the way that quality signals were being measured, and since then there have been several changes – for example, Tweets now appear in desktop search results, suggesting that social media messages are being given more attention in the algorithm.

Just One of Many Signals
Judging quality is not easy. Content quality measurements have, up until now, been relatively simplistic. Links from highly respectable .edu or .gov domains would be given a lot of weight. Links from sites that had a lot of incoming links themselves might be given a lot of weight too, but quality was as much a numbers game as it was about verifiable sources and clear facts. However, that is starting to change.

Google is working towards rating sites based on the content they post. A site that regularly posts scientifically accurate, verifiable facts will be ranked more highly than one that posts questionable information. A website that attracts a lot of attention quite quickly on social media, and is often shared and mentioned, is likely to rank better than one with a small user base.

Still a Numbers Game?
There is, of course, still some danger of SEO becoming a numbers game. However, to avoid this Google uses numerous other signals. Getting mentioned on social media is a useful indicator of quality, but Google verifies this by looking at things like the bounce rate and the time the visitor spends on the site. If Google notices a trend for visitors it refers to a website viewing only one page or hitting the back button very quickly, this suggests that the quality is not as high as it first appears, or that the page isn’t as relevant as the algorithm thinks to the query in question.

Google’s ranking algorithms are constantly evolving as the way that we use the web changes. Today, Facebook engagement and Google +1s are a sign of domain-level quality. Next year, who knows what we will be using to share our favourite sites and pieces of news?

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