Digital Insights

Why Social Media Mentions are Unlikely to Replace Link Building


Published: June 18, 2014

To the casual observer, it looks like social media mentions are on track to replace back linking as the primary means of ranking websites, but there’s a little more to ‘the sky is falling’ headline than meets the eye.

On the one hand, Google is shutting down or degrading the importance of one link building method after another, including link farms, link wheels, dofollow links, irrelevant links, links from spammy websites, paid links, reciprocal links, keyword-rich anchor text, guest commenting and guest blogging. According to official Google spokesperson Matt Cutts, the only type of link that Google officially approves of is the ‘editorial’ type of link freely given in acknowledgment of high-quality content.

Contrast that with the rise of social media in general and social mentions in particular. Google confirms that social signals are now part of the estimated 200 factors that make up its ranking algorithm, but just how important social mentions are relative to links is uncertain.

The practically unanimous opinion of the SEO community is that while the relative power of links has probably declined somewhat in favor of social mentions, back linking is going to remain an important factor in ranking websites for the foreseeable future.

The Problem with Social Media Mentions

Given the continued growth of social media channels and Google’s ongoing battle against unfair attempts to game the back linking process, it seems only natural that social media signals would offer a better way to measure the authority and relevance of website content. Unfortunately, what sounds good in theory doesn’t always translate to reality, as social media channels bring their own set of problems to the site-ranking equation.

  • Social media is a short-lived channel. The average Facebook post has a life expectancy of a few days at most while the average Twitter tweet is history within minutes. This means that any SEO juice from social linking is likewise going to be less sustainable over time than that obtained from longer-lived conventional linking sources.
  • The pool of social media users who actively share content is actually much smaller than the total number of registered users; it is simply unrealistic to expect the search engines to put too much weight on the opinions of a small minority. For example, while 67 per cent of Internet users in the U.S. have a Facebook account, only an estimated 10 per cent are active, high-volume sharers.
  • If past behavior is any indicator of the future, Google is simply not going to make its ranking algorithm dependent on a signal owned and controlled by another party. The way Google sees it, Facebook and a number of other social media channels have relevancy signals tied to their advertising model. By putting a greater weight on these signals coming from a third party property such as Facebook, Google would in effect be helping promote a competing advertising product.
  • Social signals are already subject to damaging gaming tactics so common to link building. Anybody can buy likes, shares and tweets; the social networks will need to find a better way to measure the credibility of its sharing users.
  1. brettbum says:

    While social is short lived, I do think it catches people and friends in a timely manner as the zeitgeist manifests

  2. Gary Brewer says:

    Thanks Brett, Social is engagement, search is conversion. Only wish clients got that all the time.