The link between social signals and SEO has been a debate for years, but the recent introduction of Google+ has only heightened this discussion and caused more confusion. Do social signals really play a big role in SEO? If a social media site is a nofollow site, is that still beneficial for SEO? Are certain social signals more important than others? These questions are quickly becoming more and more important to understand for websites really looking to improve their position on a Google SERP.

The first thing to get straight is what the term “social signal” really means. People often think of social signals as the number of tweets or the number of +1s, and while these certainly are social signals, it’s important to think of them in terms of changing positions on a Google SERP. While these will help a website gain visibility, it is that visibility that changes a website’s ranking. In other words, social signals are really more indirect than direct. Still, this should count when it comes time to answer the question: How do social signals play a role in SEO?

Ways Social Signals Can Affect SEO

Google bases ranking positions on signals that can be trusted—backlinks from authoritative sites, internal links that improve navigation, etc.—so the question really becomes whether or not Google can trust certain social signals. People may be able to tweet out a lot of content, but is this really something Google can trust to change a ranking? Probably not.

For this reason, Google has begun to alter SERPs based on personal preferences. The following social signals can be trusted because the person doing the searching has either notified Google that they like a certain article/website or they are connected with someone who vouches for an article/website:

  • Author Tags – Author tags utilize an author’s photo on a SERP. In general, people are more apt to click on a result with a picture (especially if it is an author they trust). This will eventually help the website gain position on a SERP; however it is the number of clicks that will help it improve its ranking, and not necessarily the mere fact that there is a photo.
  • +1s – If someone were to +1 an article that you are connected with on Google+, that article is more likely to show up in your search results. You are telling Google that you trust the person who recommended that article, so Google has reason to believe this result would be more relevant to you.

It is also important to realize that social networking sites such as Twitter have a nofollow rule. In other words, Google won’t follow the links found on these pages.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the answers to most of these questions are still up in the air (hence all the confusion). David Harry of Search Engine Watch agrees that there really is no telling what kind of emphasis Google puts on social signals. Although it seems that Google+ and author tags might be changing positions on a SERP, there is no way to really know how important this is in the eyes of Google. Do the number of tweets affect SEO? Facebook likes? Pinterest activity? As with most questions about Google rankings, we just don’t know.

On that note, it’s worth mentioning that social media marketing and activity is important for countless reasons. Although it may not directly affect SEO, it will only improve visibility and form connections that will eventually, someday, help your SEO.