Is Social Really A Great Indicator Of Search Relevancy?

By: Chris Crum - April 18, 2012

It’s clear that titles matter to search. You’re less likely to rank well in search engines for key phrases if those phrases are not in the title of your content. It’s also clear that search engines are putting a great deal of emphasis on social signals when ranking content. Interestingly enough, titles also have a direct impact on just how much your content will be shared socially.

How big a part should social signals play in search engine rankings? Share your thoughts here.

Earlier this year, there was a story from Forbes, which got some attention in the press. It was covering something that was already covered by the New York Times, but the Forbes version with the more provocative title reportedly got shared a lot more, and as a result received a lot more traffic. Nick O’Neill wrote an interesting piece talking about this, which I followed up with my own take on the discussion.

The main point is that the title can make a world of difference. Having the right words in the title of an article can be the difference between 30 pageviews or 300 pageviews. It can be the difference between 1,000 pageviews or 50,000 pageviews.

It’s possible to get a lot of shares based on great content with a not-so-great title, but it’s a lot harder. I also believe a lot of people share content based on the title without even reading the article. Titles matter. A lot.

There’s something about this, however, that doesn’t quite sit entirely well, with regards to the increased emphasis search engines are placing on social signals for relevancy. Here, you’ll find Bing’s Duane Forrester talking up the importance of social. Google, as you may know, launched Search Plus Your World, the highly personalized (based on social signals) version of Google search that favors content you have a social connection to.

Google’s +1 system is all about a social connection to an article, to send Google a signal. If I +1 a piece of content and share it to Google+, I’m not only sharing it with my followers, I’m endorsing that piece of content as being something Google should be ranking well. The problem with that is that I may like that piece of content, and so may many others, but that does not necessarily make it better than some other great piece of content out there on the web that is similar, and just hasn’t found its way in front of my (and others’) eyeballs. Perhaps that other, better (more relevant to a potential search) piece of content just didn’t have as catchy a title, and didn’t inspire as much sharing because of it.

We don’t know how much weight Google gives to any singular signal (it has over 200). However, we can see various changes Google makes that do put social in the spotlight. The +1 button and Search Plus Your World are obviously two major components, but there are plenty of more subtle things. There were a few, for instance, in Google’s list of algorithm changes in March:

Better indexing of profile pages. [launch codename “Prof-2″] This change improves the comprehensiveness of public profile pages in our index from more than two-hundred social sites.

Updates to personalization signals. [project codename “PSearch”] This change updates signals used to personalize search results.

+1 button in search for more countries and domains. This month we’ve internationalized the +1 button on the search results page to additional languages and domains. The +1 button in search makes it easy to share recommendations with the world right from your search results. As we said in our initial blog post, the beauty of +1’s is their relevance—you get the right recommendations (because they come from people who matter to you), at the right time (when you are actually looking for information about that topic) and in the right format (your search results).

We discussed that first one in a separate article. It seems that Google+ profiles aren’t getting quite the special treatment that they were when SPYW first launched, but it clearly places great emphasis on social, with “improved comprehensiveness” related to 200 social sites.

The second one up there is very vague. Updates to signals used to personalize search results. I could be wrong, but something tells me the update wasn’t about making things less personalized (social, being a big factor in Google’s personalization).

Third, the expansion of the +1 is a no brainer. The title isn’t as likely to influence a +1 from the search result page, as a share on Google+ itself might be, for example, but it inspires more use of that social signal.

“The beauty of +1’s is their relevance,” Google says, but how many are driven because of a catchy title of an article the user didn’t even bother to read. Even if they did read it, who’s to say it wasn’t shared with them in the first place because it had a catchier title than some other publication that may have been competing for that user’s attention.

While it has the added value of sending a signal to Google search, we can probably agree that for all intents and purposes, the +1 button is Google’s (Google+’s) version of the Facebook like button. How many times have you “liked” a link shared on Facebook based on the title without reading the article? What if by simply doing that, you were getting that content (which may or may not have been a total piece of crap article) favored more in search engines just because of some title-based likes. What if that was ranking higher than a really thoughtful and original piece on the same topic, and was really much more suitable to searchers’ needs?

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the potential for real abuse. SEO strategist Trond Lyngbø wrote an interesting article talking about all of that. Most people blindly liking an article without reading it aren’t trying to promote a particular site or game search. But there are plenty who are.

For better or worse, it doesn’t look like social signals will play any less of a role in search engines for the foreseeable future. While titles should be relevant to the topic at hand (usually with relevant key words), you’d be wise not to undervalue the shareability of a headline.

As an added benefit, even if this doesn’t translate into the search visibility you’re hoping for, if it’s being shared a lot on various social networks, there’s a good chance you will hardly miss the search traffic anyway. It’s better to diversify your traffic sources anyway. You don’t want to be too dependent on Google or any other one source of traffic. Any Panda victim can tell you that. Good titles that inspire sharing can help a great deal in getting shared through multiple social channels.

A lot of people complained about Search Plus Your World when it was announced. The fact is, some people just don’t find results to be more helpful just because someone they know interacted with them. For many, that probably goes tenfold for people they’ve interacted with on Google+, as opposed to Facebook, where all of their friends and family are regularly networking. But that’s really beside the point.

Do social signals really make results more relevant. It’s possible that they do in some niches more than others. Some +1’s from friends who have stayed at a certain hotel in a city you’re getting ready to travel to, for instance, could make make a difference in relevancy. Likewise for restaurants, products, and probably some other things, but that’s not going to necessarily go for all pieces of information on the web. It’s not always going to work for articles. Think about political bias. Believe it or not, there are still liberals and conservatives who maintain friendships, though may have very different tastes in reading material.

For webmasters, there are issues with social being weighed to heavily as well. In addition to the points I’ve already made about one’s good content being trumped by someone else’s bad content with a better title, there is the fact that webmasters bend over backwards and jump through hoops trying to play by the rules set by the search engines – including the good optimization tactics that Google actually promotes, but should all of this be trumped by social connections? Do you risk having your content reach less people because one guy on Google+ has a lot of followers, and he happened to +1 a competing piece of content?

What do you think? Do you think search engines are putting too much emphasis on social signals? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

Chris CrumChris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.

View all posts by Chris Crum
  • Andrea

    I recently wrote an article in italian showing that social signals are not so important (almost in Italy, where SpYW is not active).

  • Ryan Hattaway

    I think as the technology improves, social will become increasingly influential in search, but it’s not there yet. You make several good points about the importance of titles/keywords and the difference it can make in pageviews. Thanks for sharing!

    • Chris Crum

      It’s certainly influential even now. I just wonder if it’s too influential sometimes. It probably depends on the query though as much as anything though.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    “While titles should be relevant to the topic at hand (usually with relevant key words), you’d be wise not to undervalue the shareability of a headline.”

    Good advice. A catchy, provocative or controversial title is going to get people to pay attention, which means more people will read it and more people will share it. I don’t think I’ve ever Liked or Shared and article without reading it first though. Think about it, even if you are sending something to your friends, you are putting your reputation on the line by recommending that article. I think more people are a little more discerning.

    • Chris Crum

      I appreciate what you’re saying. I don’t have any hard evidence, but I get the feeling there is a lot of “liking” going on without reading. From writing WPN articles alone, and seeing some of the comments we get, it’s often clear that the article isn’t being read, or at least not in its entirety. I don’t see why this wouldn’t be the case perhaps even more so, in the Facebook News Feed, for example. I’m probably guilty of it myself. For example, if an item comes through my news feed saying: “Calvin Johnson Catches 8 Touchdowns In Single Game,” there’s a good chance I’ll click “like” before I even read it.

      • Javascripts and More

        Well the important thing to Google is that “you” like Calvin Johnson and that’s what spyw is about showing relevant results based on your likes or niche. I think googles author tag takes into account your credibility and Google uses those social signals to recommend relevant results based on popularity, kinda like how they rank you by link popularity as well. Using social signals to value links to sites, posts etc is a good offsite seo and with the right onsite seo those “title” or”keywords” should give a good search relevancy. With social signals average sites that don’t really optimize have a fighting chance and those sites that do optimize probably won’t have to worry about a penalty.

      • Steve at web marketing works

        Absolutely right! I share your observations and am also worried about the bias towards social bookmarking as a ranking indicator (keyword being ‘indicator’ as there are 100’s of other indicators to take into consideration)

  • Bob Sherbondy

    When it is obvious that there is almost no basic common agreement among Americans, or people in general, regarding what is “good” or “valuable” or “important” or even “helpful” it is probably not possible for any program like Google to list in rank order resources or products or services that are worthy of wide attention. What people “like” may have very little to do with its quality.

    • Alan

      I agree. It is like searching for the Holly Grail or trying to hold mist. It gets to a point where additional tweaking and fixes make it more focussed and at the same time less relevant to many. I think an element of fussiness and randomness would benefit us all.

      Spend time on Facebook and it is clear that fluffy animals and sickly, sweet phrases will garnish more likes than the well argued post. It is the arena for the short attention span. Heaven help us if that is to be an increasing factor in search relevance.

  • Cap’n Cyberzone

    Speaking of Google’s +1 … Hey Sergey, isn’t that too a “walled garden” (hypocrite).
    And speaking of catchy titles inducing reads (hits) the NY Post newspaper is the master in that category.

  • Elle Fagan Arts

    Thank you Chris – happy spring to all at WPN.

    Exciting topic and very important one.

    Case in point: Commander Whitehead’s plane in Connecticut actually beat the Wright Brothers’ in North Carolina by at least a year and more, depending on the specifics, I think, but Wright Brothers made a deal with the Smithsonian for the PR in advance, and so went history. Back then, data sharing was such that one might not call it in or promote it beforehand, and the public had no radios or tvs or internet to catch the stories as they happened. The great advance thinking and action by Wright won it. “The Squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Scientific American liked Whitehead / Smithsonian liked Wright Media frenzy a hundred years ago that lives still on the topic

    YES – most certainly there is content more worthy but not at anywhere near the top of search engine rankings. I always suspect that they want it that way, for the purpose of maintaining old truths about the elusive quality in the search for truth. Furthermore, If everyone has access to it, how can it be worthy?

    YES – if you are searching for quality content on a subject, fast easy Google searches might only be the beginning and as always collecting several articles via varying search types is wiser.

    YES – if you want your content picked up and shared more, catchy titles catch. And I guess promoting oneself via the social sites is wise, too, if that’s how it works. I am updating my site, and will most certainly followup on the winning suggestions you make here.

  • Amanda

    I think that social signals are a big factor and that people depend on them but I don’t see why? I don’t get why people decide things in their life like where to go or what to buy just because other people say it’s good or bad. I believe that if you want something, there’s no harm in researching and getting opinions but in the end I think you should be the only one to choose. I think it’s silly to choose where to buy something because it has a better title or more keywords in it, content is king!!!!

  • Gin

    I think social signals are useful for situations where data can be gathered and collated for helping marketing efforts. It would be a gem of information.

  • Daniel

    The catchy title thing would only work if the pages are well ranked(as others have stated in comments)

    The catchy title won’t do too much good on page 25 in the Google search results.

    A catchy titled post sent out through social funnels(social sites, email list, etc) may take off initially. Though, it should have some equally catchy content if it is to go viral.
    Okay, as far as the search engines are concerned, as has been mentioned in comments, a catchy titled post must rank well or it not really of any use.

    And again, the content should be just as catchy, or visitors will simply exit the site pronto…..

    Social markers are said to have much greater influence in how Google makes ranking decisions for websites…how much of an influence is debatable…

    Yes it looks like the Google + is Google’s answer to the Facebook, and is yet another effort on Google’s part to come up with it’s own social site(network) similar to Face Book…

    And again as others have mentioned in comments, people are more than likely to give their approval(like or +) to some of the most irrelevant and often stupid things…

    This is not unlike some of the you-tube videos, whereby, just about any lame thing has the potential to be a mega hit…pulling in millions of views and a ton of responses…..

  • Tony

    Social is mainly about gossip, with some rare exceptions (networking sites). It is in the offline world, with pink and yellow press and trash TV, and it is in the online world. Sooner or later the truth will be crystal clear, and Google will look for quality again. Until it happens, we will have to adapt to sensationalism online.

  • Vegard Vevstad

    I don’t see social as a good indicator of relevancy. Best indicators for me are the content of the article and related pages on the site, not even the title. Social is way down there. In fact, social is often the opposite of relevant, if relevant means usefulness or quality. Trash is popular and social, quality and relevancy or usefulness not so much.

  • Brenda

    I agree totally with Vegard. There is a lot of manipulation with social connections.

  • Dave Whelan

    To much indication on social signals, yes. For example our sister site sell toner cartridges for printer. I don’t know anyone who would click a like button or a vote for one. unless you are very sad. The same for our financial advisors site. If you are selling games or Ipads maybe.

  • Mika

    I am sure for G+ and other things like that, comming out from Google should be totally ingored by everyone, especially by media, articles and discussion like this one, no matter how stong or weak impact on websites could they produced. Why? Beacause for me and majority of folks Google was, and IS nothing more than good email service and one of seach engines. And as search engine they should simply grade the content, keywords, links, etc, like it use to be since ever. All that social bull’s are just that – bull sh… Not? How than search engines worked well for all of us so many, many years back, before all that social scraps were invented and ever existed? And if social impact is sooo important, OK, than they may use Facebook likes, very simply solution. And much reliable than any of such new ‘+’ or maybe ‘-‘… whatever, signs. FB is anyway much larger social network than any of their copies like G+ and others artifical ‘inventions’ (copycats) will be, ever. This claim could be copmared with situation where on this planet we all have one sun and enough daylight and if one doesn’t wanted to use it, rather start inventing and promoting some sort of their sun and light. Yes, comparation is hyperbolised, but basicallye, that is it. So, folks, let’s ingore all that G craps and let’s use Google for Gmail and search like before, without taking a part in their silly “+” craps. Best we can do is ingoring it. Silence about it, and it would disappear alone.

  • Eudene

    Yes, … I strongly agree with your thoughts, with social connections to improve everything

  • Larry Lubell

    Not all businesses will have equal appeal in the “Social World.”

    I own Urban Insurance agency, the simple truth is people have little desire to “Follow” the Tweets of their insurance agent!
    Articles about car insurance do not keep people at the edge-of-their-seat; and I promise you people are not looking to download pictures of me.

    Movie Stars, Sports cars, Rock Stars, all have the kind of appeal to attract social contact; but to use these connections to help decide page-rank for a dentist,accountant, insurance agent just makes no sense.

    If I hired a “Hot” model with a sexy voice to put in a series of TV spots, I might get more attention, and be able to solicit guys to “Friend” her and our site; but that would not make us a better choice for your insurance needs.

  • mdj31

    heck phone call

  • Tony

    It’s not just what you write, but where you publish. Your best articles should be on your own site, but finding sites that will publish your articles AND transfer pagerank via a link can make a BIG differnece;

  • Financial Advisor investor

    Who is going to use a social bookmark tool to vote for their local Financial Advisor If they do, do you think they should get out more.

  • Brandy

    Social media is only one aspect of marketing businesses. Google will never give up their power and let social media be the decider of how websites rank.