Throughout 2010 and as late as March of 2012, Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s WebSpam team and primary liaison with the SEO industry, urged the SEO community to focus on social networking as a way to improve web rankings. The idea was that social networking “signals,” which are basically social activity and communications that point to the hot issues on the web, were going to eventually replace backlinks as a major ranking factor. There appears to be an abrupt turnaround on this.
At the 2012 Search Engine Strategies Conference in San Francisco in mid August, Matt Cutts was asked which social signals Google uses. Matt replied that they cannot crawl FaceBook pages to see who is reputable and reliable (it is easy to fake), and their relationship with Twitter ended in 2011. Prior to that Twitter had been providing Google with Tweet information directly. On top of the dissolving of the Twitter agreement, Twitter blocked Google’s access to their site for 1.5 months after the relationship ended, so they are cautious about using Twitter as a social signal. It sounds like that relationship soured.
Moreover, Matt Cutts recently stated that they have not been able to find a way to use their own Google Plus social network as a source for reliable social signals. This clearly indicates that the social signals concept as it was originally conceived has fallen apart.
Google has made many bold claims in the past that they were not able to implement effectively due to technological hurdles. Going back to around 2005, Google announced that they would soon be able to read textual characters in images. They were never able to accomplish this. A few years ago, they also said that they would soon be able to pull content out of videos. They have only partially achieved this and now say that Google can index text in Flash files. They can only achieve that if the Flash files contain embedded text files. If the Flash is made up of images, it cannot be indexed.
So what is the problem with social media?
Aside from the fact that Google’s Matt Cutts has admitted that they do not currently use FaceBook, Twitter or even their own Google Plus social signals, there are substantial obstacles to overcome before they can use them.
First and foremost is the fact that from a spider’s perspective most social networking sites are a complete mess. Just scan down any member’s page in FaceBook or Twitter and you will most likely find a conglomerate of disparate posts without any focused content, as well as a wide range almost gibberish comments. That is polar opposite of what search engine spiders are designed to seek out and identify as good quality content that satisfies a user’s search. How could most of these pages be interpreted as useful information to a spider’s algorithms?
The second factor is that almost all outbound links on major social networking sites utilize the nofollow attribute, which tell spiders to disregard the link and not pass any inheritance values. That nullifies the value of those links for SEO purposes.
Is Google ignoring all social networking signals?
No. Video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo are social media and social networking sites that Google, Yahoo and Bing all actively index and promote. The big difference with these types of social networking sites is that they are built using standard web pages that contain titles and content that describe the video. Videos cannot be indexed directly because they are made up of sequential image frames, but Google’s YouTube creates a timeline transcript of the audio track using voice recognition technology. The transcript is believed to be used to describe the video content and provide an additional source for keywords.
So where is Google going with social networking?
Most new Google employees are in their early 20’s and are fresh out of college. That is a crowd that understands and enjoys social networking. I believe they will continue to push the social networking concepts until they either find a way to make it work or they abandon the ideas that don’t work, as they have done often in the past. Thus far, most of their ideas have not worked.
I can be very hard to force social networking concepts on businesses run by more mature people who do not see the value in these sites. Is there any value? There can be a value with driving traffic if you have the right type of “friends” and “followers” and offer the types of products and services that they seek. But you have to be actively involved and engage your followers regularly. But I’ve seen no evidence thus far that involvement with most networks will do anything to improve rank positions, as so many in the SEO industry claim. This is not just an opinion; it is a conclusion based upon my testing over the past few years.
As Matt says during this interview with Danny Sullivan at the SMX search engine conference on June 5 of this year, he is telling people that they should not abandon link building. He also says that perhaps the issue with social signals taking over as a major ranking factor may be different in ten years. That is a great way to kick the can down the road when they cannot find a way to sort out the amalgamated and disjointed mess created by FaceBook and Twitter. The larger surprise is that Google cannot figure out how to effectively extract social signals from the Google Plus network that they designed.