Eric Enge wrote a good post recently: Do Social Signals Drive SEO? He repeats that Google denies using social signals to drive search engine results. And he says while the evidence shows that socially popular links do rank well (and quickly) it is possible to explain this while Google continues to ignore this signal that humans find useful (people we trust sharing links).
Google has tied themselves to thinking that nofollow is a sensible idea core to their demands for compliance to their directions for how web sites make links. Google has been promoting it be used how they direct for years. So when social sites and other large sites just put nofollow on everything that doesn’t directly benefit them (like Google+, Twitter, etc.) Google either has to change their thinking that nofollow is a good idea or reward sites that only follow links they directly benefit from.
You have to remember Google attempts to use nofollow to mandate its view of what is a trusted link and what isn’t. Google seems to say it is fine to follow links your organization benefits from if it isn’t that you are being paid cash for that link. Of course it is hard to draw that line in the real world. When an employee of some S&P 100 company writes an article on the company blog about the companies new product they employee is paid to promote the companies product. If the employee didn’t write it the company wouldn’t be paying their salary for long. But these links Google doesn’t mind.
But other kinds of links where sites have been paid for links Google doesn’t like. It is a tricky area but Google’s solution is very poor it seems to me.
And I don’t even know what their position is on other things – like partnerships where millions of dollars are exchanged and links are one of many things being paid for (mainly with Google it seems to be if enough money changes hands it is ok, it is the small stuff that Google really doesn’t like – if Coke pays millions to places those links are fine, if Joe’s Fresh Drinks does something similar to a neighborhood blog that is not ok with Google). Lots of places can’t figure it out either and many sites just decided to make everything they didn’t directly benefit from a nofollow link (like G+ does) with I guess the cost benefit analysis that there is a risk in making real links so don’t take the risk unless you directly benefit from it.
Well, I actually didn’t mean to get off on the problems with Google’s nofollow directives, back to what I meant to write about. But it is related. I can’t see any reason why Google refuses to use a signal ever person experiences as an important signal for them every day they browse the web other than being trapped into their thinking they have been threatening people with for years on nofollow.
One of the important points Eric made is that even if Google ignores social signals, human being don’t. And then those human beings will create links based on finding good resources and sharing them (most often in personal blogs – as Google has frightened companies away from making real links with vague rules and penalties resulting in many companies marking every link as untrustworthy to Google using nofollow).
The other issue of course is that social has often become a very large portion of inbound links. Thus even if it didn’t improve search engine links popular social sharing is a substitute for gaining traffic that is not SEO by the initials (search engine optimization) but fairly related to the role people responsible for SEO have (where it seems the role really grew beyond SEO to attracting traffic and it still sometimes is under the SEO name – even if it isn’t actually SEO).
Google can then take the portion of the social signal that remains (it is greatly reduced as the indirect signal is much less clear but for very popular things with strong signals some of the original signal will seep through to something Google will accept in ranking results of a search). And then Google can use the indirect signal in search results.
Two of the reasons I find this a poor solution:
- using a indirect signal means a large portion of the value of the full signal is lost
- Matt Cutts has been saying for over a decade to just provide a good user experience. While Google might have short term issues with an algorithm that is exploitable if you just forget all that and focus on providing content that is good for human users you can trust that Google will keep getting better and better at using the signals an intelligent person uses to judge content. A huge majority of people today that browse the web are enormously influenced by social signals directly. Google acting like them being blind to this direct signals is not a big failure is just not sensible given my belief in Matt’s long term emphasis on the user versus manipulation for search engines (like nofollow) that are not even noticed by users.
I will admit it is frustrating how other companies are not capitalizing on Google’s acceptance of ignoring useful signals for content quality. I do use DuckDuckGo by default but I use Google when that doesn’t provide good results or when I want to find only recent results. And continued peeks at Yahoo and Bing continue to be unimpressive. As a stockholder of Google, this is a good thing, but as a search user I find it distressing how search result quality seems worse today than it was 5 years ago.
Related: Google Still Providing Users Degraded Search Results: Basing Results Not of Value to Users but How Completely Sites Do What Google Tells Them To Do – Google Falls Victim to Google’s Confusing Dictates, Punishment to Google and Google Users Likely