Social Media SEO Signals are Drowning in Ice Cream

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Social media does not drive SEO.

At a recent PR News SEO and Google Tools Conference, several of the presenters made reference to studies done by SEO tool vendors about social media driving search results. These studies are surveys of SEO professionals; SEO folks are asked what they believe are the most important contributing factors to a site’s organic search performance.

By itself, there’s nothing wrong with the data. Here’s one example from SearchMetrics, in which 7 of the 10 top ranking signals are social media-based:


What conclusion might you draw from this? At the conference, presenters on stage and members of the audience drew the conclusion that social media drives search traffic. They drew the conclusion that to rank well in search, you must post your content on social media.


Yet Google’s head of web spam, Matt Cutts, openly said that social media signals are not taken into account in Google’s search algorithm.

So why the confusion?

This is a clear case of marketers not understanding correlation. All these studies are correlations only. Before we dig into why the conclusion is wrong, let’s revisit ice cream and drowning. If you were to look in any public health database, you’d notice a strong correlation between the amount of ice cream people eat and the number of people who drown. The surface conclusion you might jump to is that ice cream causes drowning, right?

Of course not. Common sense says there’s an underlying variable: temperature.

As temperatures go up, people go swimming.
People eat ice cream.
The more people swim, the more people drown.

Very few drowning deaths occur in the middle of winter.

You could likely find similar data that shows a strong relationship between deaths due to hypothermia and hot cocoa consumption.

Let’s revisit social media ranking signals. What might be the underlying variable that we’re forgetting? The currencies of SEO are inbound links. The more high quality links you get to your website, the better you rank. Is it reasonable to assume that high quality content gets great links? Yes! Is it also reasonable to assume that high quality content gets shared? Yes! Does that mean social sharing drives SEO? Absolutely not. It’s just an indicator of quality content.

The lesson that attendees at the conference should have taken away was to create content so great that people can’t help but link to it and share it vigorously. Disabuse yourself of the notion that social drives SEO in any way until we hear the official word from search engines to the contrary.

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One response to “Social Media SEO Signals are Drowning in Ice Cream”

  1. I haven’t disagreed with you in a long time so I thought it would be fun to try it.

    “SEO” has evolved and shifted so much over time. Who says optimzing your marketing has to be limited to back links? I think the view of the professional SEO is evolving dramatically and i think I can make an argument that social sharing indeed influences search results.

    Which content would be more “optimized?” Content that is stuffed with keywords and even a few links but is NOT shared, or a blog post that is “optimized” and IS shared widely?

    As you state in your article, certainly content that moves and is SEEN has more of a chance to earn organic back links than content that is not seen at all. Why wouldn’t you take a view that content ignition is the MOST important part of SEO — by far?

    I also think you are jumping to the conclusion that it is the great content that gets shared. That is not necessarily so. Sometimes the most powerful content doesn’t win, it is the most powerful website, brand, or promotional power. If I post the same content on my blog or the Mashable blog, I will likely get 10 X the shares on Mashavble even if the content is the same. The act of content ignition is FAR more complicated than the quality of the content.

    But let’s put aside the reasons why content gets shared and simply look at the fact that it is a POSSIBILITY that there COULD be a causation relationship between content that gets shared and content that gets linked (that is logical) and of course there is a relatinoship between content that gets linked and content that has the best SEO chances. I just don’t see that as a leap at all.

    Allow me one small illustration. Chances are, Chris Brogan gets his content shared more than you and linked more than you. Is his content consistently better than yours? Probably not. But he has an established, powerful blog and brand that probably exceeds anything you or I could achieve. He content moves because of WHO he is, how powerful his website is, and that also creates more links than you will earn from the same content effort. And links earns search placement.

    Also, let me pull out a conspiracy theory. If a post from a reputable site gets shared 500 times and a similar article gets shared twice, why wouldn’t that make a difference to Google? It should, if it is a reliable signal. But what would happen if Cutts said yes … social sharing is in our formula? I cannot even imagine the ganes that would go on. The SEO world with EXPLODE with new ways to pimp social sharing signals. It would be completely out of control. Google would have to develop an entirely new level of algorithmic discernment at great cost.

    If I were them, I would simply avoid this possibilty by denying, vigorously, that it makes a difference. If it is a lie, I applaud them, for the world is a better place for it!

    Thanks for the intelligent post and the generoisty to allow me to comment.

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