For years Google have largely based their ranking algorithms on links. These links have counted as ‘votes’, which pass link juice and help Google determine a page’s popularity and relevance to a certain search phrase. But, as Danny Sullivan explains on his great Social Shares post, the problem with links is that you can only ‘vote’ for other pages if you own a website. So what about the millions of people who don’t have sites? This is where social media gives its power to the people.

What better way now than to look at all the shares, +1s, tweets and likes to determine what the people are voting for?

That was the topic of this morning’s SMX London 2012 session, Social Shares: The New Link Building. Danny Sullivan led a panel featuring Verve Search CEO Lisa Myers, Bauer Media‘s James Carson and AOL’s Simon Heseltine.

Social as a Ranking Factor

In terms of links Google first looked at the quantity pointing to any one site and then progressed to judging a link’s quality by looking at the authority and relevance of linking pages. But, coming back to Danny’s point, social provides a new opportunity to understand quality ‘votes’ for each page. When Lisa Myers stood up to the SMX mic earlier she gave a bit of background on backlinks and went on to discuss social media as a new ranking factor.

Google wants to count social since it provides good quality democratic ‘votes’. But is this happening? And, as Danny pointed out, since Google don’t have easy access to Facebook and Twitter data, how are they managing to incorporate social in their algorithms?

This is largely where G+ becomes useful. In yesterday’s keynote, Amit explained Google+ was launched to help users find everything they want in one place (namely social results!). But the G+ launch becomes more understandable once we understand the value of social data in serving the most relevant search engine results. Google can use data on Google+ and +1s across the web to help inform their rankings.

Lisa pointed to SEOMoz’s 2011 study on social shares as a ranking factor and to Tasty Placement’s infographic. Before the launch of Google+, Facebook shares seemed to influence higher rankings more than any other social signal, but more recently it seems as though G+ followers leads to higher ranks.

With the release of SPYW social data has been brought right into search, making it easier to share and to find shared content. More importantly, it demonstrated how social can massively influence rankings.

Image: Bas van den Beld, State of Search

Amit also noted yesterday that these author profiles increase CTR, making it important for brands to implement rel=author and have a prolific and trusted G+ page.

Beyond that, there are ways to measure social signals in order to emphasise them and begin to create more signals pointing to your site(s).

Measuring Social Signals

The second presentation in this session was from James Carson. He focused on how to measure and create social signals. In effect, this new method of ‘link building’, or ‘share building’, as I suppose it would be.

James noted that he thinks links are more equitable than shares, but that sharing is undoubtedly a powerful new social signal.

He also pointed out that Facebook has a much larger audience, but that when you create a social strategy you really need to think about your audience. The examples he gave were that Facebook is better for entertainment brands, Twitter and G+ are better for technology/news and Tumblr is good for fashion or anything more visual.

One of the most important points James made was that the quantity of followers you have, like with links, doesn’t always equate to quality. It is therefore better to isolate influencers and form a strategy around getting your content or shares noticed.

According to James you can find them:

Once you have found the influencers you can put them into spreadsheets, divide them up into tiers and decide who to target. A useful way of doing this is by using Google Ripples, a really nice new tool which shows how your social content spreads between influencers. By looking at this chart you can target secondary influencers and try to ripple your content between different tiers of friends and colleagues.

Image: Visual News

Creating Social Signals

On Social Sites

Hand in hand with measuring social signals is creating them. You can do this on social site themselves, on your own site, or by combining a mix of two. James pointed out how Branded3 used their Competwitions (where you have to retweet to enter) to create strong signals on Twitter. As part of a related study Branded3 reported that if you receive 7500 retweets on an URL it is likely to rank in the top 5 for Google, which is an interesting statistic.

By leveraging relevant Twitter trends (James suggested looking at you should also be able to create urgent social content which is more likely to be shared.

When it came to Facebook James gave a list of ways you can influence user engagement and ultimately show up in people’s news feeds. You should:

  • Post games and trivia
  • Interact with your users
  • Intergrate wall apps
  • Post relevant photos
  • Comment on current events
  • Post videos
  • Post great content
  • And of course include links to your site.
His final takeaways were to think about network selection, list and segment your influencers, curate this list and follow the ripples, make waves in social platforms and practice your timing, as relevant to your vertical.
On Your Site
Where James gave some top tips for spreading the good word on social networks, Lisa suggested some ways you can get this started at home, right on your websites. This strong content is designed to be shared and help you rank. Day to day you should:
  • Create research and write whitepapers
  • Write ‘How To’ articles and blogposts
  • Break industry news
  • Make infographics
  • Run competitions
  • Conduct interviews

Long term, on the other hand, you should create a community within your site. Lisa emphasised that a large part of this is creating a reliable  blog which is a hub for articles, whitepapers and comments. Lisa suggested that blogging is the most powerful tool for social media.

In the Q&A session Lisa answered a great question about whether brands should allow employees to build their personal social profiles on work time. Lisa said it would happen and should happen; that brands can profit as employees become prominent and reliable. Yes they might leave, but you can get a long way by attaching your name to a sociable person in your industry, whether they’re a current employee or an ex-employee.


Simon Heseltine, from AOL, talked about their acquisition of Huffington Post and the tactics they have used to become prominent in social media. As with the other two presenters he emphasised the need to track virility and cause, rather than generic numbers of followers. They actually create their own metrics and ways of measuring these for custom insight.

Since the Huffington Post began their social campaigns they have received 150 million comments on their site. Simon and his team have implemented some really interesting ways of engaging their visitors.

Whenever people make a post or comment on the site they include their social details so users can continue their discussions off the site on the social media networks.

Huffington also implement gamification methods, something James mentioned. Here they give away badges to active moderators in the community, people who post often, users who have lots of friends etc. This makes them feel special and rewarded. Something else interesting is that they allow users who have unlocked moderator badges actual deletion privileges, proving that they trust them.

As James emphasised that you need to judge which networks to use, the Huffington Post realised that users might want to listen to very specific feeds. Therefore they’ve created different profiles for different news sections and verticals.

Some key takeaways from Simon were:

  • Don’t measure shares so much as virality. But they do measure tweets, retweets, likes, shares, comments, click actions on page, page views etc. so they can see their current trending articles and understand what’s working.
  • Ask who you are engaging with and fine tune this until it works.
  • Leading on from this: know your audience.
  • Also, something that James agreed with, there is no best time to tweet for everyone. It depends on your vertical and on what will resonate. You should check this by analysing your statistics.

On to SAScon

I hope you have enjoyed the tweets coming live from SXM London 2012. Thanks to Danny, Lisa, James, Simon and all the speakers and organisers who made SMX a great event.

After the final Q&A session today the Linkdex team will pack up and move on to SAScon for tomorrow and Friday! If you are going to SAScon, try and say hello. We would love to meet you.

Featured Image Source: VisualNews