Social Now Is the Most Important Search Ranking Factor

September 4, 2013 Jeff Woelker

In the last few months, Google has been making some game-changing updates to its search algorithm, which has many search marketers scratching their heads about what to do next. Content or links? Editorial or paid? Link sculpting or disavow links? Authorship? It’s enough to make even the most savvy search folks wonder, “What the heck do I do now?”

Recently, Search Metrics did an in-depth study of the most correlated variables when ranking high in search engines. The answer may be surprising in that seven of the top eight factors associated with high search rankings are social in nature.

I know, it sounds counterintuitive to what we’ve been hearing for years. From keywords, to page titles, to link building, the emphasis has been on everything but social. Now, however, a major groundswell is happening that is forcing search marketers to rethink the way they have been approaching search for years. As more and more search marketers were gaming the system and creating content only geared towards bots and crawlers, the web and Google were becoming a vast wasteland of unusable content farms and link pollution, some of which still remains today.

With Google’s ranking algorithm changes, the company is incorporating more human elements and vetting within the machine and using social as a way to signal what’s important and what is not. And Google only continues to move in this direction. Many marketers have dismissed or pushed aside Google+ as a second-rate social network only meant for niche audiences. As you can see in the chart, however, Google is going to be taking content shared at Google+ much more seriously and forcing marketers to pay attention by any means necessary.

And Google is not stopping with +1’s, likes or tweets. It recently launched its review extension for Adwords, which now pulls in reviews of your products and services directly within your advertising. That further ties your efforts in social with search.

So, what can a search or social marketer do about all these changes? Here are three steps to use as you evaluate your content to ensure it’s optimized for search and social:

Would your customers share your content?

The answers to that question can be so honest and so hard at the same time. For many marketers, it didn’t matter in the past if customers would share their content. It was enough to appease Google and users would inherently show up as a result.

By rethinking your content strategy and making the content more interesting, compelling, differentiated, humorous, or honest, you make it more appealing both for the consumers to read but also to share with others. And it applies just as much to B2C as B2B. I’m just as apt to share a white paper from a tech company that makes fun of industry jargon as I am to share the latest recipe from a CPG brand that gives me a good cooking idea. Both are on target, in a language their users speak, shareable, and if done correctly, searchable.

Is your content in a language your customers speak?

How do I know if my customers will share my content? It’s one thing to just say it, but it’s another to enact it. To that end, there are a number of data sources you can pull from these days tovalidate whether your customers would share your content. One is first and foremost social listening. By using tools such as Radian6SysomosLikester and Simmons you can find out what your consumers are talking about, what resonates with them, and what they are more likely to share. Using Likester as an example, you can find out that fans of your brand are also fans of American Idol, Nascar and Roller Derby. Let’s say your next white paper is around “How IT infrastructure is like the last lap at Daytona.” First, it’s a topic your audience is already interested in and second, it’s a metaphor that your audience can relate to. Both factors make it instantly something your audience will resonate with. Or perhaps, your next post on Pinterest is a recipe using terms a popular show your customers like. Again, that makes your content so much more shareable than “Our latest recipe” or “Summer recipe.”

How can you measure what’s happening?

And the last and most critical component, how do I measure all of this? As in many other digital marketing campaigns, start small, test and learn, and scale up. You don’t need to go through and optimize your entire calendar for next year or go back and optimize every piece of content you generated last year. Instead, try it out and see what works. For instance, you can easily test message using free and inexpensive paid tools to test out your messaging with a limited audience. Figure out what resonates, drives traffic, and generates leads or even foot traffic—then scale up from there. Do you wonder whether to use humor or honesty? Close-ups or landscapes? Put together some test content and run them past a small audience (limited budget, geography, targeting, etc.) and see what resonates. From there, you can make the case on a small level and obtain budget for larger efforts.

So, do you think social is the next great leap in how search engines rank their content? Or do you think search engines are trying to find relevance and draw back users from time they are spending on social networks?

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