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Are social shares the new link building? The role of social media in search marketing

A recent experiment conducted by US search company TastyPlacement tested the impact social media can have on organic search results, taking into account Twitter followers, retweets, Facebook shares and Google+ activity. The key result was that +1s on Google were the biggest driver of organic search engine traffic.

This is hardly news to search marketers, but illustrates how social is fast becoming one of the key drivers in search results.

With Google+ now having more emphasis as Google’s own social network, it is becoming ever more important – essential, even – for brands to engage proactively with their target audience within Google+ and achieve those all-important +1s.

Social shares have been referred to as ‘the new link building’ in search marketing. Integration is key, too; the IAB Search Marketing Barometer 2012 found that search is not yet fully integrated, but that 62 per cent of marketer respondents see tangible benefits from integrating search into the wider media mix. But how does social integrate with search marketing, and how will the influence of social grow and develop throughout 2012 and beyond?

With Facebook, Twitter and Google+ all allowing consumers to share content with their networks, are social shares the new link building? What role do these kinds of social signals play in the future of search?

Neil Jackson, head of natural search at I Spy Marketing, suggested that whilst social search is an important element of organic search, it does not replace link building.

“Social search is a key part of a natural search campaign but it is not replacing link building anytime soon. What is happening is that social media is helping to make search campaigns more relevant and help target a wider audience for link building and outreach. Social is also increasingly important in sending relevant signals about user engagement back to the search engines. The search engines are using social networks to make connections between groups of people and sites as well as their actions.”

Andrew Girdwood, media innovations director at LBi bigmouthmedia, confirmed this point, stating: “It is important to understand that social sharing has not completely replaced the role of trusted, quality and authoritative links. Only recently, Google released a video which highlighted the importance of links in their algorithmic determination as to when content should be crawled or re-crawled.”

Jackson also stressed the importance of understanding your users and what they want. “In 2012 we will see increased importance placed on social media by the search engines but as with links, the focus has to be on quality and not quantity. Build real relationships with your users; this doesn’t mean getting to know them all individually and intimately, but understand what they are looking for from you and deliver it to them.” This sentiment was echoed by Latitude’s head of SEO, James Lowery, who stated: “There’s an increasing need for businesses to actually understand who their search customers are, and create a dialogue with them and people like them.”

Jackson went on to advise that whilst an awareness of functional changes such as the Google Share Button is essential, marketers shouldn’t just jump on every new social media trend but should instead consider whether it’s relevant to their users.

Personalisation or individualisation of search results looks set to be a game changer in search. Girdwood believes that social shares are about to become even more important with the launch of Google’s latest interface, ‘Search, plus Your World’ – or Search+, which personalises searches with friend recommendations.

“The social annotations that Search+ bring to the results can increase click through rates, therefore traffic, by more than 10 per cent in some instances and verticals. For some brands this is equivalent to extra months of PPC traffic for free.”

Meanwhile Kevin Gibbons, director of strategy at SEOptimise, highlighted the importance of the personalised search Google can now provide, saying: “90 per cent of people trust recommendations from people they know; in comparison, only 40 per cent of people trust recommendations from search engines, so personalised search is huge to Google for this reason and a threat to them if they don’t get it right.”

There is also question mark over Google’s ability to ‘get it right’ in terms of truly incorporating social signals into its algorithm – but this is something the search giant is striving to improve. Kevin Gibbons believes that Google has struggled to get social right up until now – and that because the process of providing relevant search results has evolved due to social, it’s an ever-more important part of Google’s strategy.

“Google is aware that in order judge a website’s reputation it can no longer just look at links – social plays such a huge role in making a website an authority, that they simply can’t ignore it.

But Google hasn’t got there yet – and I’m sure they’d be the first to admit it. That’s where Google+ comes in. If Google can see what stories are being discussed and what links are being shared most frequently on social media sites - they can get the full picture instead.”

One of the other themes for search in 2012 is its integration with the wider media mix. James Carson, head of digital marketing - lifestyle, at Bauer Media, believes that one of the main developments in social’s integration with search will be the difference it makes to the SEO industry itself.

“As search becomes increasingly intertwined with social, SEO becomes even more about people than algorithms. This means people in SEO will have to brush up on more traditional marketing skills – things like consumer profiling mixed with keyword analysis will become immensely valuable.”

Carson commented further on this changing role of the SEO expert, saying: “To be good at search, you’ll need a solid overall communications strategy. I don’t think the in-house SEO team of the future will be the guys in the corner who don’t get talked to much. They’ll be integral members of marketing teams and be able to give vital insight.”

The impact social shares can have on PPC advertising is another positive result of sharing, according to Andrew Girdwood:

“If a landing page successfully accrues enough Google +1 social recommendations then that can be made public and can be shown under a PPC ad the page is used for. The extra clicks the public recommendation generates can have a positive effect on the ad’s Quality Score. A boost in Quality Score is equivalent to a boost in price paid for the click.”

So what’s next for social search? Adam Skalak, SEO director, iCrossing, believes that social signals must become more relied upon than links. “What is absolutely key for Google now is to generate statistically significant amount of social signals so that they can shift the reliance from links to social signals.”

Skalak also said that content would remain king in terms of influencing search rankings.

“I believe that from a SEO point of view not much is going to change as the white hat strategies focus on creating unique, interesting and useful content that people love to share. It does not matter whether they link to it or share it as long as the content gains that attention. From a short term point of view, one of the challenges in 2012 is leveraging the Google+ network and +1’s for SEO campaigns as the numbers of active users from various backgrounds is still limited.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Girdwood of LBi bigmouthmedia stated that good SEO should incorporate a multi-signal approach rather than relying on social shares alone.

“Good SEO in 2012 and beyond will accept social signals are important, remain committed to trustworthy link signals and recognise that Google wants to see a whole range of quality signals. Therefore, good SEO in 2012 will adopt a multi-signal approach rather than throwing a disproportionate and damaging amount of activity into just one type of signal.”

Kevin Gibbons and James Carson are both speakers at this month’s Search Marketing Expo – SMX London, which takes place on 15-16 May at Chelsea Football Club.

The Drum's special report on search marketing is available for subscribers to download here.

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