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:

seoranking.jpg

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.

Matt_Cutts___Google_SPAM_Team___Social_Signals_EXPLANATION_-_YouTube.jpg

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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