Do social signals affect organic search rankings?
Google says no.
Some correlation studies claim to show otherwise.
Let’s clear up the confusion.
The Claim: Social Signals Are A Ranking Factor
First, let’s determine what we’re talking about here.
Social signals, for the purposes of this discussion, generally refer to things like:
- Facebook engagements (likes, comments, shares).
- Twitter engagements (tweets, retweets, likes).
In the past, social signals also referred to activity like Google +1 (back when Google Plus was kind of / sort of relevant, circa 2012-2013).
Raw follower counts have also been mentioned as part of the “social signals” discussion.
Now, as for the idea that social signals are a ranking factor, it basically comes to this:
Content ranks well and gets lots of traffic.
Content has lots of social media shares.
Share count must have helped it rank well.
The Evidence For Social Signals As A Ranking Factor
Where did the whole idea of social signals originate? To find out, let’s go back to 2010, when Danny Sullivan wrote What Social Signals Do Google & Bing Really Count?
“…who you are as a person on Twitter can impact how well a page does in regular web search. Authoritative people on Twitter lend their authority to pages they tweet. When it comes to Facebook, Google says it does [try to calculate someone’s authority], in some limited cases.”
That was followed a few days later by a video from Google’s Matt Cutts, in which he confirmed they use Facebook and Twitter links in ranking (“as we always have”).
Cutts also stated that Google was looking into using the reputation of authors or creators as a ranking signal.
Many ranking correlation studies over the years have noted a strong relationship between social signals and organic search ranking.
For example, Moz released its final ranking factor correlation study (and survey) in 2015. It found that the number of social shares a page accumulated had a positive correlation with rankings.
In the survey, Moz asked 150 marketing professionals whether the number of social media shares a page was influential on organic ranking, specifically:
“Quantity/quality of tweeted links, Facebook shares, Google +1s, etc. to the page.”
Of all the ranking factors, page-level social metrics were rated as having the lowest impact.
Two important notes here:
- A survey is not a fact.
- Correlation is not causation.
Their findings were that a strong social media presence and shares from Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, and Pinterest correlated with higher rankings.
They found a strong correlation between social activity on Twitter and rankings.
The Evidence Against Social Signals As A Ranking Factor
In 2011, Sullivan asked Cutts about a correlation Moz found between Facebook shares and Google rankings. Cutts said,
“Google doesn’t get Facebook shares. We’re blocked by that data. We can see fan pages, but we can’t see Facebook shares.”
In 2014, Cutts was asked the following question: “Are Facebook and Twitter signals part of the ranking algorithm? How much do they matter?”
“Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But as far as doing special specific work to sort of say ‘you have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook’, to the best of my knowledge we don’t currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.”
“We have to crawl the web in order to find pages on those two web properties and we’ve had at least one experience where we were blocked from crawling for about a month and a half. And so the idea of doing a lot of special engineering work to try to extract some data from webpages when we might get blocked from being able to crawl those web pages in the future, is something where the engineers would to be a little bit leery about doing that.”
In 2015, Google’s John Mueller was asked: “Do social signals have an impact on organic rankings in Google?”
His response: “Not directly, no.”
What does that mean?
He went on to elaborate that social posts show up in the search results (e.g., Twitter content) and can rank for certain keywords (your product name, brand, etc.).
Here’s his full answer, with the full context:
In 2016, Google’s Gary Illyes responded to a tweet about whether Google takes social into account for SEO.
His response: “No, we don’t.”
— Gary “鯨理／경리” Illyes (@methode) June 7, 2016
Illyes even shared a link to the Cutts video from 2014.
A few other things to consider:
- Most social networks nofollow links. Thus, any links to a webpage wouldn’t pass any authority.
- Facebook can’t crawl all of Facebook, for example. So how would they calculate influence on that social network? And even if they could, that’s a heck of a lot of data to crawl, index, and make sense of.
- Also, social signals are fairly easy to manipulate. You can buy followers and likes and pretty much anything you want. But it’s more likely a bot than a human. Will buying your “social signals” result in any actual engagement? Not likely – especially considering that a 2016 study found that 59% of URLs shared on Twitter never get clicked.
Social Signals As A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict
Social signals simply won’t help your content rank any better.
Great content tends to rise to the top (granted, not always).
It’s more likely that the correlation you’re seeing between social signals and SEO is actually just people sharing great content – because it’s great.
People tend to not share terrible content because it’s terrible (and it doesn’t rank in organic search or drive much/any traffic).
Social media content absolutely can help your brand/company/product/whatever appear in organic results.
And social media has plenty of indirect benefits (e.g., engagement, traffic, brand awareness, personal branding).
All of these can help your SEO efforts, but indirectly.
Bottom line: It’s unlikely that if you get X number of likes, shares, or followers, or whatever vanity metric, that Google uses social signals as a ranking factor.
Featured Image: Robin Biong/Search Engine Journal
How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)
Creating and selling educational courses can be a lucrative business. But if you already have a product to sell, you can actually use courses as a marketing tool.
Back in 2017, about two years after joining Ahrefs, I decided to create a course on content marketing.
I had a very clear understanding of how an educational course would help me promote Ahrefs.
- People like courses – Folks like Brian Dean and Glen Allsopp were selling theirs for $500 to $2,000 a pop (and rather successfully). So a free course of comparable quality was sure to get attention.
- Courses allow for a deeper connection – You would basically be spending a few hours one on one with your students. And if you managed to win their trust, you’d get an opportunity to promote your product to them.
That was my raw thought process going into this venture.
And I absolutely didn’t expect that the lifespan of my course would be as interesting and nuanced as it turned out to be.
The lessons of my course have generated over 500K+ in total views, brought in mid-five-figures in revenue (without even trying), and turned out to be a very helpful resource for our various marketing purposes.
So here goes the story of my “Blogging for Business” course.
1. The creation
I won’t give you any tips on how to create a successful course (well, maybe just one). There are plenty of resources (courses?) on that topic already.
All I want to say is that my own experience was quite grueling.
The 10 lessons of my course span some 40K words. I have never attempted the feat of writing a book, but I imagine creating such a lengthy course is as close as it gets.
I spent a tremendous amount of time polishing each lesson. The course was going to be free, so it was critical that my content was riveting. If not, people would just bounce from it.
Paid courses are quite different in that sense. You pay money to watch them. So even if the content is boring at times, you’ll persevere anyway to ensure a return on your investment.
When I showed the draft version of the course to my friend, Ali Mese, he gave me a simple yet invaluable tip: “Break your lessons into smaller ones. Make each just three to four minutes long.”
How did I not think of this myself?
Short, “snackable” lessons provide a better sense of completion and progress. You’re also more likely to finish a short lesson without getting distracted by something.
I’m pretty sure that it is because of this simple tip that my course landed this Netflix comparison (i.e., best compliment ever):
2. The strategy
With the prices of similar courses ranging from $500 to $2,000, it was really tempting to make some profit with ours.
I think we had around 15,000 paying customers at Ahrefs at that time (and many more on the free plan). So if just 1% of them bought that course for $1K, that would be an easy $150K to pocket. And then we could keep upselling it to our future customers.
Alternatively, we thought about giving access to the course to our paying customers only.
This might have boosted our sales, since the course was a cool addition to the Ahrefs subscription.
And it could also improve user retention. The course was a great training resource for new employees, which our customers would lose access to if they canceled their Ahrefs subscription.
And yet, releasing it for free as a lead acquisition and lead nurturing play seemed to make a lot more sense than the other two options. So we stuck to that.
3. The waitlist
Teasing something to people before you let them get it seems like one of the fundamental rules of marketing.
- Apple announces new products way before they’re available in stores.
- Movie studios publish trailers of upcoming movies months (sometimes years) before they hit the theaters.
- When you have a surprise for your significant other (or your kids), you can’t help but give them some hints before the reveal.
There’s something about “the wait” and the anticipation that we humans just love to experience.
So while I was toiling away and putting lessons of my course together, we launched a landing page to announce it and collect people’s emails.
In case someone hesitated to leave their email, we had two cool bonuses to nudge them:
- Access to the private Slack community
- Free two-week trial of Ahrefs
4. The promotion
I don’t remember our exact promotion strategy. But I’m pretty sure it went something like this:
I also added a little “sharing loop” to the welcome email. I asked people to tell their friends about the course, justifying it with the fact that taking the course with others was more fun than doing it alone.
I have no idea how effective that “growth hack” was, but there was no reason not to encourage sharing.
In total, we managed to get some 16,000 people on our waitlist by the day of the course launch.
5. The launch
On a set date, the following email went out to our waitlist:
Did you notice the “note” saying that the videos were only available for free for 30 days? We did that to nudge people to watch them as soon as possible and not save them to the “Watch later” folder.
In retrospect, I wish we had used this angle from the very beginning: “FREE for 30 days. Then $799.”
This would’ve killed two birds with one stone:
- Added an urgency to complete the course as soon as possible
- Made the course more desirable by assigning a specific (and rather high) monetary value to it
(If only we could be as smart about predicting the future as we are about reflecting on the past.)
Once it was live, the course started to promote itself. I was seeing many super flattering tweets:
We then took the most prominent of those tweets and featured them on the course landing page for some social proof. (They’re still there, by the way.)
6. The paywall
Once the 30 days of free access ran out, we added a $799 paywall. And it didn’t take long for the first sale to arrive:
This early luck didn’t push us to focus on selling this course, though. We didn’t invest any effort into promoting it. It was just sitting passively in our Academy with a $799 price tag, and that was it.
And yet, despite the lack of promotion, that course was generating 8-10 sales every month—which were mostly coming from word of mouth.
Thanks to its hefty price, my course soon appeared on some popular websites with pirated courses. And we were actually glad that it did. Because that meant more people would learn about our content and product.
Then some people who were “late to the party” started asking me if I was ever going to reopen the course for free again. This actually seemed like a perfectly reasonable strategy at the time:
7. The giveaways
And whenever we partnered with someone, they were super happy to get a few licenses of the course, which they could give out to their audience.
8. The relaunch
Despite my original plan to update and relaunch this course once a year, I got buried under other work and didn’t manage to find time for it.
And then the pandemic hit.
That’s when we noticed a cool trend. Many companies were providing free access to their premium educational materials. This was done to support the “stay at home” narrative and help people learn new skills.
I think it was SQ who suggested that we should jump on that train with my “Blogging for Business” course. And so we did:
We couldn’t have hoped for a better timing for that relaunch. The buzz was absolutely insane. The announcement tweet alone has generated a staggering 278K+ impressions (not without some paid boosts, of course).
We also went ahead and reposted that course on ProductHunt once again (because why not?).
All in all, that relaunch turned out to be even more successful than the original launch itself.
In the course of their lifespan on Wistia, the 40 video lessons of my course generated a total of 372K plays.
And this isn’t even the end of it.
9. The launch on YouTube
Because the course was now free, it no longer made sense to host it at Wistia. So we uploaded all lessons to YouTube and made them public.
To date, the 41 videos of my course have generated about 187K views on YouTube.
It’s fair to mention that we had around 200,000 subscribers on our channel at the time of publishing my course there. A brand-new channel with no existing subscribers will likely generate fewer views.
10. The relaunch on YouTube [coming soon]
Here’s an interesting observation that both Sam and I made at around the same time.
Many people were publishing their courses on YouTube as a single video spanning a few hours rather than cutting them into individual lessons like we did. And those long videos were generating millions of views!
Like these two, ranking at the top for “learn Python course,” which have 33M and 27M views, respectively:
Well, the “single video” version of that same course has blown it out of the water with over 1M views as of today.
I’m sure you can already tell where I’m going with this.
We’re soon going to republish my “Blogging for Business” course on YouTube as a single video. And hopefully, it will perform just as well.
So that’s the story of my “Blogging for Business” course. From the very beginning, it was planned as a promotional tool for Ahrefs. And judging by its performance, I guess it fulfilled its purpose rather successfully.
Don’t get me wrong, though.
The fact that my course was conceived as a promotional tool doesn’t mean that I didn’t pour my heart and soul into it. It was a perfectly genuine and honest attempt to create a super useful educational resource for content marketing newbies.
And I’m still hoping to work on the 2.0 version of it someday. In the past four years, I have accrued quite a bit more content marketing knowledge that I’m keen to share with everyone. So follow me on Twitter, and stay tuned.
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