Do social shares correlate at all with SEO?

Rand Fishkin of Moz wrote a fascinating Whiteboard Friday article recently, making the claim that except for the top 10% of content producers, social media sharing appears to have no impact on SEO. Go read the article first.

This struck me as a very broad claim. I wanted to see how I might find that out for my site. As with so many things in digital marketing, your mileage may vary, and I felt instinctively certain that my experience is different from the aggregate.

Using one of the many SEO tools at my disposal thanks to SHIFT Communications’ data-driven marketing technology toolkit, I took a look at my website’s inbound links vs. social shares. I did a Spearman regression with Rand’s hypothesis that there should be absolutely no correlation between social shares and inbound links.

What did I find?


Above, we see a modest positive correlation between social shares and referring domains (which are the domains that contain inbound links to my site). While it’s not amazing, it’s also not zero.

I even took a look at Rand’s own site, (and Rand, that link with equity is on the house):


Above, an R value of 0.445 with a p value less than 0.001 is far from no correlation. In fact, it’s a moderately strong correlation.

What we’ve proven is that the aggregate statement “social has no bearing on inbound links” is an extremely broad statement. As with anything in metrics, analytics, and statistics, there is no substitute for doing your own work, with your own data, and analyzing for yourself. You can start with a hypothesis derived from a broad, aggregate statement, but do not make the fatal mistake of assuming the aggregate whole also represents your business. You’ll drive your business into the ground.

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Do you know how to measure assisted search?

What’s behind the recent resurgence of interest in search engine optimization, SEO?

Shown above: large spikes of mentions in SEO over the last 2 years

Is it because companies feel like the only channels they have control over any more are search and email? Perhaps. Certainly, moves by social networks to undercut companies’ non-paid reach have reduced confidence of marketers in social channels.

Is it because Google’s changing the rules behind search results at an ever-increasing pace? Perhaps. The menagerie of pandas, penguins, and hummingbirds certainly keep webmasters and content marketers on their toes.

There might be a third, harder to see reason: assisted search.

What is assisted search? In Google Analytics, there’s a concept called assisted conversions, things that impacted the final conversion but were not the last touch. A Tweet might not be the last thing that someone saw prior to converting into a lead, but it certainly might have helped.

Assisted search is a similar idea. Something else could have contributed to search without being the search query itself:

  • You might have driven by a billboard.
  • You might have heard about it on a podcast.
  • You might have seen a mention of a brand on a TV show.
  • You might have talked to a friend or colleague who told you to check something out.

Any of those things might have been the impetus for you to search, but no web analytics tool in existence will be able to detect it.

We all assume that SEO is once again super-important because organic search traffic is going up. What if it’s not SEO? What if it’s assisted search instead?

There’s only one way to know the answer to this question: ask people when they get to your website how they heard of you. Don’t wait for them to go buy something or fill out a form – ask up front:


This is a little 1-question custom survey I’ve got running on my site. I can take the results of this survey and compare it to my web analytics to see just how much of my organic search traffic can be attributed to assisted search. Here’s an example of the early results:


Obviously, the above is statistically invalid, laughably so, but it’s a start. I already see one out of three responses are word of mouth. One is referral, likely from the interview I did with Michael Stelzner. One is social media. Over time, more of this data will tell me just how much of my traffic is from assisted search.

Consider setting up this kind of survey (can be done with a popup or third party services like Google Consumer Surveys for Websites) on your own website so you can start measuring assisted search!

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Is your site mobile-friendly? Now your SEO depends on it!

Google made very large waves recently by announcing that the mobile-friendliness of your site is going to significantly impact search results. From the Official Google Webmasters Blog:

“Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices.”

In the rest of the post, Google recommends that you use Webmaster Tools to make your site more mobile-friendly. How do you get started doing this?

First, log into Webmaster Tools and find the Mobile Usability report in your site’s settings:


What you ideally want to see is this:


What you are more likely to see is this:


Above is the Marketing Over Coffee site. It’s got some problems. Let’s look at them.

The first problem is that it lacks a viewport definition. This is a simple HTML fix that can be done in your website’s theme or code. Google has simple, explicit instructions on how to fix the viewport here, but it’s literally a matter of just adding a line or two of code to your website’s design to start. You can then go and tweak it later; the bare minimum will meet their standards for usability.

The second problem is small font size. Google’s definition of small font size is body text under 16 CSS pixels (roughly 12-point fonts). Anything smaller than that is going to get flagged. Have your website designer or developer adjust your fonts accordingly. Full recommendations on fonts can be found here.

The third problem is touch elements are too close. Google defines this as any significant touchable element (buttons, etc.) on site that are less than 48 CSS pixels wide and there should be a border of at least 32 CSS pixels between touchable elements on page. This is less easy to fix and will, for most people, require your designer’s help to get right. (if you need a great design team, we have one at my employer, SHIFT Communications) If in doubt, make buttons big and leave lots of space around them. Here are the rest of the touch elements guidelines.

The last problem is Flash. Google has said for a while Flash is bad. It looks like, from an SEO perspective, you’ll be penalized for its usage. Remove it and replace it with HTML5 options instead. Got video on site? Switch out your proprietary Flash player with something from Vimeo or YouTube. Got audio on site? Switch out from Flash to Soundcloud’s HTML5 player.

If you want your site to rank well, follow Google’s guidelines. Ignore them at your organic search traffic’s peril. You have until April 21, 2015 to make your decision!

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