Since the inception of SEO as an industry, web marketers have been chasing algorithmic updates and attempting to predict exactly what factors would come to play a leading role in organic search engine rankings. As the search engines' engineering teams expanded and became more sophisticated, the scalable (and indeed manipulatable) techniques of the first decade of the new millennium gave way to speculation that the algorithms could no longer rely on purely faceless and sometimes dollar-oriented metrics such as backlinks and on-page optimization.
While those still, and most likely will always play a large part in how sites are ranked, the search engines are now looking to augment the search experience by crowd-sourcing some of their work to social media sites such as Facebook, FourSquare, LinkedIn and Twitter... to name just a few. The thinking here is that many of the traditional SEO signals like back links and keyword implementation can be manipulated by web developers and optimizers, whereas people's honest opinions on products or services (when their name and reputation is on the line in a social environment) is much less likely to be manipulated.
As Stefan Weitz, Director of Search at Microsoft pointed out in a recent interview, this information was previously "trapped in people's heads" and unreadable by machines. Through the use of social sharing, customer reviews, and search activity, people are now committing their recommendations and endorsements to an open medium that the search engines can read, interpret and utilize in their rankings.
In December of 2011, Matt Cutts, the head of Google's web spam team confirmed that social signals do in fact count "relatively lightly" in the rankings game and that Google was "studying how much sense it makes to use it a little more widely in [their] rankings." Notice that Google, already anticipating the possibility of a manipulation of social signals, warns that authority matters.
This sparked the search community to not only debate the issue, but to dig deeper into the effects of social media on rankings. For those analyzing the data, the key was to determine if there is a direct correlation between increased social signals and organic rankings or if the relationship is a byproduct of other causal factors. In other words: Are the number of tweets, mentions and shares directly affecting a site's rank, or are the inbound links they naturally create through people discussing them the reason for increased rankings? Either way, there was no disputing that sites with more social activity were ranking better than those without.
In June of 2011, SEOMoz' in house data scientist, Dr. Matt Peters, crunched the numbers in an attempt identify a direct correlation between the number of facebook shares and increased organic rankings.
At the time, Dr. Peters concluded Google was not using Facebook share data directly in their rankings.
As we enter 2013 the question continues to be: just what is is the correlation between social signals and rankings? Has Google used them "a little more widely" in their algorithms? While the evidence is varied most conclude that the importance of social signals is increasing over time, whether this is a direct cause of algorithmic updates or simply a byproduct of increased traditional SEO signals through social media.
As we continue to try to make sense of social signals from a rankings perspective, there is no question of their marketing value. Here are several reasons to engage and develop a strong social presence as we head into 2013... regardless of search engine rankings.
Social media and social impact on rankings is not going away any time soon. As the Neilson Report on Social Media in 2012 illustrates, social media is playing a larger and larger role in our online experience. And even more so in the lives of adolescents and teenagers who will become the next generation of consumers, relying on these signals as endorsements or warnings against products and services.