The SEO Benefits of Social Networking

By Peter Kent

Social networking is a sticky topic when it comes to SEO. How can social networking help your SEO efforts? There are essentially four ways you can benefit:

  • Link benefit: Links from social-networking sites can, in some cases, help boost your pages in the search engines.

  • Search engine real estate: As the search engines index some social-networking pages (and Tweets), being in social-networking sites gives you another online location, another possibility for being found by the search engines.

  • Promotional benefit: The whole point of a social networking campaign is to promote your site or business; doing so puts it in front of people and builds awareness.

  • The social networking sites are search engines: People search on social-networking sites.

Getting links through social-networking sites

Google has indexed over 5 billion Facebook pages, and many of those pages contain links to the page owners’ websites.

Here’s the problem, though. These links are nofollow links, so, in theory at least, they have no link value. Twitter also uses nofollow links, as does MySpace and many other social-networking sites.

So, do those links have any value? Here’s a theory: It’s hard to say whether this is true, but … what if the search engines do sometimes read nofollow links? After all, what is the point of nofollow links? The original purpose was to stop people from spamming blog comments by telling the search engines not to follow the links and thus removing an incentive for blog comments. But the purpose of nofollow was not really to stop search engines indexing links — that was just a mechanism to discourage spam.

Now, imagine that you are a search engine programmer. You want as much information as you can get to help you rank pages. Aren’t all those links on social-networking sites useful?

Now, with the barriers to entry being much, much lower for social networking and social bookmarking — it’s much easier to set up a Facebook, or MySpace, or Digg account than to build a website — Google has a much larger army of site reviewers to help it figure out how to rank websites. There are quite simply many more social-networking accounts than there are conventional websites.

So you, the search engine programmer, know that all this great information is out there to … but wait! They are nofollow links! Do you decide not to use the links?

To make nofollow links accomplish their original purpose, search engines don’t have to ignore the links; it’s good enough if people think the search engines ignore the links. But perhaps they don’t. Perhaps they do read those links to extract this vast amount of useful information.

Again, that’s just a theory.

You can find conflicting information on this issue if you care to search and see what the search engines say. Certainly, both search engines have said in the past that they do use social-networking data. For example, Bing has stated that “We do look at the social authority of a user. We look at how many people you follow, how many follow you, and this can add a little weight to a listing in regular search results,” and Google has said that “we do use it as a signal.

It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings.” As for the specific question of “do you ignore nofollow links or not,” note that, in the early days, the social networks did not use nofollow links. If the search engines found those links useful in the early days, they might not have simply stopped using them for ranking just because the networks started nofollowing them.

Grabbing search engine real estate

Another way that social networking can help you — perhaps — is to grab real estate in the search results — that is, when someone searches for your keywords, your site comes up in the search results and some of your social-networking profiles come up in the results, or the profiles of others who are linking to you come up in the results.

In practice, grabbing real estate is harder than it seems, because social-networking pages themselves are not given much weight by the search engines. How do you know that? Because they don’t often come up in the search results.

You can find significant exceptions, though. For instance, search for the name of a band or musician, and you may see their Facebook page appear in the results. When searching for individual’s names, LinkedIn.com pages often come up pretty high in the results.

Still, you should create various social-networking accounts for your site or business, and then ensure they have lots of links pointing to them, containing the correct keywords, of course.

Promotional Benefit

The best links are real links. To paraphrase Matt Cutts, what you need is links in “editorial [content] freely given where someone is recommending something and talking about it in a blog post” or some other form of website.

Thus, SEO linking is moving toward a PR model: You promote your site, business, or product, and people write about you — and link to you — because there’s a real story to be told.

Social networking can be a huge part of a PR campaign, a way to reach the masses, and to encourage the masses to talk about you. It’s a way to get people to mention you in their blogs, to help journalists to discover you and write about you in magazine, news, and newsletter sites, and so on. So social networking can be a hugely important tool for many businesses to promote themselves and, almost coincidentally, end up with links that promote their websites.

The social-networking sites are search engines

The major social networking sites are also major search engines, with billions of searches a month; in fact, Facebook alone gets more searches each month than Ask.com.

So, social-networking sites are search engines. Now, it’s true that many of these searches are for people, but many will be for interests and products, too.