Is Social Really A Great Indicator Of Search Relevancy?

    April 18, 2012
    Chris Crum

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.


Chris Crum
Chris 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.