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Glossary Definition: Social Signals

An ever-growing glossary of SEO Jargon

What Are Social Signals?

A social signal is a measure of social media activity, such as a vote, share, or other engagement that a search engine might take into consideration as part of its ranking algorithms.

As with backlinks, social votes and shares can be interpreted as endorsements for brands and web content, in turn helping organic search rankings.

Types of Social Signals

Social signals include:

  • Votes: Facebook likes, Google +1s, LinkedIn votes
  • Posts: Facebook, Wordpress, and Tumblr posts, Twitter tweets
  • Shares: Shares, reposts, and retweets
  • Bookmarks: Social bookmarking on sites like Delicious and Diigo
  • Comments: Comments on posts and shares

There is much speculation as to just how much social signals are being integrated into search engine ranking algorithms. Both Google and Bing have confirmed that social signals contribute as ranking signals; however, full disclosure would result in widespread manipulation.

Google has integrated social media data into its Analytics software to help webmasters measure the impact social media has on their websites, which is an indication of how much Google values this data.

It's likely that Google and other search engines have a wealth of data they can use as ranking factors far beyond what they share with the public.

The Value of Social Signals

The value of social signals is often confused with the value of the links to web content that they often contain. The value of backlinks have long been a ranking signal for search engines such as Google and Bing; however, links from social media platforms often don't pass equity or PageRank due to the widely implemented nofollow attribute, which is used to discourage link spam.

The currency of social signals is not measured in backlinks, but in trust and authority.

Because trusted social media accounts, within quality networks, generally interact with quality web content, both Google and Bing use these recommendations to get a clearer picture of the trust, popularity, and authority of web pages they share, link to, and like[1][2].

Other Functions of Social Signals

  • Social signals justify backlinks: A website with hundreds of backlinks and no social signals could be a good sign of low quality link building
  • Content discovery: Likes and shares from reputable social media accounts result in quicker discovery and indexing by search engines

Facebook Social Signals

Facebook Social Signals & Bing

It's unclear as to how much search engines use Facebook data as a ranking signal; however, it's likely used more by Bing than by Google. Bing powers Facebook's Web search functionality, and Bing's Social Sidebar (a third column on its search results pages) allows logged in users to comment on and like Facebook posts relevant to searches without leaving the search engine[3].

Facebook Social Signals & Google

Although Google has no partnership with Facebook, the search engine still has access to the portion of Facebook data available to the open web, and likely uses some of it to gain insights into popularity of web pages.

Twitter Social Signals

Twitter Social Signals & Google

Google and Bing both struck a deal with Twitter in October 2009 to display real-time updates in their respective search results; however, on July 2 2011, Google's Twitter deal expired. Google lost access to Twitter's real-time feed, or firehose of data, along with any chance of efficiently integrating it into their ranking algorithms. Google terminated its Real-Time Search feature shortly thereafter.

Although Google no longer has access to Twitter's real-time feed, it still has access to public tweets available to the open web, and extracts social signals from some of the data.

Twitter Social Signals & Bing

Bing still has access to Twitter's real-time data feed, and tweets are included in Bing's own version of "Real-Time Search": its Social Sidebar. Bing's continuing real-time data deal with Twitter—as well as its partnership with Facebook—is key to Bing's successful integration of the social web into web search.

Types of Twitter Social Signals:

  • Twitter account reputation: Google and Bing associate the authority of public figures and publishers with their respective Twitter accounts
  • Twitter follows: Google and Bing calculate "social authority", looking at numbers and quality of Twitter account follows and followers
  • Twitter mentions: Google and Bing consider URL mentions and retweets on Twitter to be ranking signals (unrelated to typical link signals), and assign value to tweeted links based on the reputation and authority of the account tweeting them

Google+ Social Signals

Although Google officially denies using any of Google+'s data as a ranking signal, the usual indirect benefits to search visibility—and more—are present in sharing quality web content on the platform.

  • Google+ shares: Google+ shares result in followed link, offering direct link signals
  • Google+ posts: "Shared links" (the links that show up beneath Google+ posts) pass link equity such as PageRank, as well as certain links in Google+ "About" pages
  • Google +1s: Google's Matt Cutts made it clear in August 2013 that Google +1s are not a ranking signal[4]; however, it is widely accepted that +1s help will faster content discovery

Other Social Signals

  • Authorship: Authorship markup is a way to connect authors with their content on the web. Because authorship connects known, great web authors with their content, Google has expressed interest in ways authorship markup could help rank search results [5]. Web content published by popular authors could very well rank quickly in search without the backlinks normally associated with search visibility
  • Social bookmarks: Activities from social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Diigo are fed directly to Google, and integrated in Google Analytics

It's clear that links and recommendations on the social Web can directly help rankings in regular search results—as well as indirectly—as more shares equal more exposure, and often more backlinks.

As with link building, 90% of the effort should go to creating compelling, useful web content, that people can't help but like and share.


See also: Ranking signal, social media marketing
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