web development for search engine optimization

Dispelling the Myths- Does Social Really Impact Search?

On September 1, 2011 I was invited to SEMCLT to speak about the impact social networks may have on search engine results.

It’s important for SEOs to know the difference between correlation and causation.

If you look outside your window on a hot day you might see a bunch of ice cream trucks does this mean the ice cream trucks caused the hot day? Or do the appearance of ice cream truck correlated with a hot day?

You might say, “That’s obvious, ice cream trucks don’t make the day hot.” But David Hume says it’s not that easy. While laying billiards he came to an important conclusion: when he hit the ball, the ball moves. Did he cause the ball to move or is there something else behind it?

Again, you might say, “That’s obvious.” But when you try to prove it, it becomes difficult. Just because it happened that way in the past, doesn’t mean it always will- why? Because you have to know the entire system to know anything. You know ice cream men don’t cause a hot day because you know there are more things that cause a hot day – you know more of the system. You know that hitting the billiard ball causes it to move because you have experienced similar things in the physical world BUT how do you know if you know enough of the system? How do you know you are looking at the right data?

David Hume is the father of skepticism- what does this have to do with SEO? More SEOs should be more skeptical about claims behind the causes of rankings than they are. This is especially true when it comes to claims surrounding the connection between social media and SEO.

To investigate this connection, let’s consider some of the things that social media might affect.


When Michael Jackson died the Google engineers thought there was some sort of DoS attack- then Google learned they were unable to respond to breaking news as quickly as they had hoped. To remedy this, Google started receiving information directly from Twitter- the PIPE. Consequently if you were to tweet out a web page Google would index it virtually immediately.

For example-a client onetime asked me why his website never appeared even for his own brand name. The answer was obvious: there no links to his page. The remedy was equally simple: with one simple tweet of the URL (not shortened and despite being nofollowed) the page was indexed.

Yes, it ranked because it was indexed but only for brand name so not really a ranking factor. In other words, if it was already indexed, the ranking would not improve by tweeting.

This was true, at least, until June or July of this year- Google stopped using the Twitter pipe. So how is Google going to react to real-time news? Google+

But does it work the same as it used to?


  • Two pages on two blogs that basically inactive.
  • Set up Google alert for a very unique phrase in each of them
  • One page Tweeted, the other page link shared on Google+

Result: Both were indexed almost instantly, contrary to my expectations.

What does this mean? Did Google+ lead to my page being indexed? Did Twitter still lead my page to be indexed?
Then I realized: I had forgotten to turn-off the XML sitemap plugin so it pinged Google when I published the post. Returning to David Hume for a moment: the more I knew about the system, the more I was able to explain BUT could there be other factors in play as well.

  • Does WordPress still use pingomatic?
  • These blogs were inactive but had links and the spider (ir)regulary visitng it
  • Third party sites that index Twitter (twitter page showed up in Google alerts first)
  • Paper.li (followable links to shared articles, followable link to homepage)
  • Twitturly (followable link to homepage)
  • Google+ has followable links, but unindexable AJAX

The conclusion: this is just good SEO- nothing to do with social media. I had setup my blogs and networks to disseminate my blog posts and it was links within these systems that caused the page to be indexed so quickly.


  • Two pages on two websites that basically inactive
  • Both are static HTML pages
  • Neither website has Google analytics
  • Set up Google alert for a very unique phrase in each of them
  • One page Tweeted, the other page link shared on Google+

Result: Google has not indexed either of them (at this point).
What does this mean?

Google no longer using Twitter pipe and Google+ not replaced Twitter pipe


Not enough followers (on either Google+ or Twitter)


Something else we can’t tell

The conclusion from both of these experiments: social media might affect indexing, but good SEO practices still matter.


In addition to affecting indexing of websites, social media may be affecting ranking of websites. There are a couple ways that social media may affect ranking:

1. Freshness

Freshness, as a ranking factor, is another implication to Michael Jackson- and Google’s need to respond to timely events. This is not so much dependent upon the Twitter Pipe as much as “Caffeine Update”- which increased the speed with which Google can index the web. First announced 2 months after MJ death and then rolled out 1 year after his death.

You can see this in another (failed) experiment I preformed:

  • Two new, exact match domain names
  • First had ability to share it on Twitter, other on Facebook

Question: can Google index Facebook like it can, Twitter? (Experiment preformed before Pipe was turned off).

Results: both got indexed.

What this has to do with social and freshness? When watch the SERPs you can see other things jump ahead of these domain names when it’s new news but each eventually becomes #1 again because of the power of exact-match domain names. This is the freshness effect: Google temporarily boosts new content until it’s determined that the content no longer relevant and it re-sorts the ranking (possibly with the new element outranking the old but not necessarily).

What does this have to do with social? Social sharing a possible factor in identifying things that should benefit from freshness. To the casual observer it may appear that sharing things on social media would improve their ranking but in reality it could be just making them fresh and give a temporary ranking boost. In other words: is it social factors that are making things rank or the fact that as things are shared socially they have a larger, albeit temporary link profile (thereby dependent upon regular SEO factors)?

2. Personalization

Another way social media may appear to affect ranking is in the personalization of search results.

For example: my girlfriend once helped me start a garden. She suggested that, rather than buy whole set of garden tools, I use a “tool library” she heard about. She Googled: “tool library” –what did she find? “javascript tool library”, “jquery tool library,” etc. Did I mention that my girlfriend is a web designer and developer? When she asked for a “tool library” Google assumed she wanted some sort of“web tool library.”

Google has been personalizing results for a while now. Here are a couple other examples that will generate different results based upon your personal preferences:

  • Search “Barack Obama”
  • Search “Egypt”
  • Search “Climate Change” (on Bing, even)

These personalized search results are based upon factors such as:

  • Your personal history of clicks
  • When you are signed in- and possibly even when you are not

Social media may affect your personalized search results but basic SEO still applies. What if you’ve never searched for this industry or topic (or product or service) before? Personalization wouldn’t matter. Good SEO still will affect the SERPs.

What about your customers who have never searched for you before or never searched for similar products or services? Social cannot affect their personalized search results.

Does this mean SEOs should forget about social media? No. Social media might still:

  • Help with long-term sales funnels
  • Bring back customers
  • Help spread the word of your products to your customers contacts

Bottom Line: Good SEO Practices still very important even if social media is affecting indexing of websites and freshness and personalization factors in the SERPs.

Reactionary SEO

Some SEOs think their job is all about tricking Google. They have to react and react quickly to changes because Google is constantly adjusting. If you approach SEO and social media in this way, you will be constantly chasing social media and reacting to it. Results will fluctuate and might be great- sometimes. Other times you might fall flat- as what once worked no longer works.

Let me suggest an alternative to you…

Proactve SEO

Good content that’s interesting and helpful and worthy of being shared on social. You’ll get good links because it is worth linking to. These links may come from your social media contacts – as you are engaged in your industry. As things improve gradually they remain steady and grow and you are not have to be a reactionary SEO.

Then you don’t have to wrestle with David Hume’s dilemma of knowing everything to know anything.

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