Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Social Authority and SEO

15 years ago when I first worked in search engine ‘submission’ (it wasn’t called ‘optimization’ back then) everyone wanted to be on Yahoo, Lycos was our faithful search hound, Jeves served up 'natural language' search, and getting a client listed on Dmoz was like getting a hole-in-one. That all changed with the advent of Google, and it became about bots, spiders, algorithms, and we never looked back. That was then, this is now. Things have changed, but the priorities are still the same.

I get asked a lot about SEO and social media, especially by my old industry colleagues, and the dependencies involved in taking advantage of social for SEO. There’s a relatively new (and underrated) concept called ‘author authority’ (or ‘social authority’ if you’re Bing) that acts as SEO for the social space, and it’s well worth paying attention to.

So how does it work? It’s a fairly simple metric (as to be honest is all SEO, if you know the equation). We can learn a lot from traditional SEO methodology and tactics, and social can have a real impact on SEO in return.

The core of ‘author authority’ relies on a link from a social media profile being initially rated depending on the account (or profile/person/business) that’s posting it, and how ‘authoritative’ that account’s deemed to be. This is just like ‘PageRank’ (in SEO terms) and ‘domain authority’ used by Google to determine the quality and reach of one website linking to another. ‘Authoritative’ seems something of an abstract concert, but here’s how it could be defined in the social space based on my/our SEO and social experience:

Within Twitter you can easily see the number of followers a profile has, and the number of followers the accounts that follow the account have (plus the ratio of followers to people the account is following). Add to this simple metrics like the age of the account, how many times a day it posts, the number of lists people have added the account to, and the reach of the account (perhaps how many times it’s retweeted and the reach (total follower numbers) of those retweeting it). Then look at the network of the other accounts around you, notably the ones who follow you and their calculated ‘social authority’. All this plays a part.

Are we talking Klout score here? Well, maybe something similar, and fostering relationships with your industry leaders has obvious benefits in the distribution of content as well as boosting link ranking, but there are other factors to consider if you want social to benefit your SEO and SEO to benefit your social.

If these factors are important in ranking the ‘authority’, then this is an easy comparison to how the big search engines rank SEO values, and therefore how they value what we share in social channels. We can, tentatively, take this analogy a bit further and examine potential common elements between SEO and social media:

  • Popularity - It’s conceivable this could also be the actual popularity of the link itself. Not only by occurrence and distribution, but also by it’s relation to the stored PageRank and popularity of it’s destination and potentially by ‘likes’, 1+’s, click-through rates, retweets, ‘shares’, and other peer distribution systems. If it’s tweeted to 10000 people, 500 of whom pass it on, this is going to be a flag that (based on a 5% referral rate) the link is popular. The same can be said for ‘other methods of sharing in other channels. Different social channels affect different search engines – Bing likes Facebook, for example.

  • Relevance - In SEO there’s greater credence given to an inbound link from a relevant website (i.e., it being from a site that’s on the same or a related topic) than one from a non-relevant website. It’s likely this also applies to links in social media. For example, if you are a vineyard looking to foster social media links to positive reviews etc., then links from profiles mentioning wine (with associated domains related to viniculture and from people who regularly post wine reviews or talk about the industry) are likely be considered of more valuable than links from general profiles (who usually have no relevance to wines and spirits).

  • Text (and possibly text weight) – this is classic old-school SEO. I shouldn't really use the word 'keyword', which are technically a field or tag in a pages code, but I will to demonstrate the concept. We use this tactic for clients all the time when writing blog posts, and weight titles and linked text accordingly. There isn’t usually a lot of text surrounding a link in social media, especially in the likes of Twitter, so we need to make the most of it. There’s a little more for us to play with in Google+, linkedIn, and Facebook. It’s fairly safe to assume keywords play an important part, even in this reduced textual real estate, and that search engines will use the links surrounding 'keywords' (and the overall subject matter usually addressed in the profile or other architecture) to further determine relevancy. In traditional SEO text weight also plays a part, essentially the number of times a keyword (and potentially, in social media, other associated on topic concepts) are mentioned. Thinking about keywords and their incorporation, not just when writing the likes of a blog post and especially in channel creation, is going to be critical for the long-term future of your social media efforts.

  • Link-building - in SEO this is a widespread tactic. Basically, 10 links from 10 different sites is far better than 10 links from the same site. It shows ‘variety’. We can assume the same applies in the social space, and 10 profiles posting a link is better than one profile posting it 10 times. Social media is perfect for link-building, and I now consider it essential in any long-term SEO campaign. It’s easy to see the appeal of social media to those trying to bolster their traditional SEO efforts. Naturally the more relevant and higher profile the links, the better.

Achieving a high level of traction on social media platforms, particularly if that traction comes from profiles with a high ‘author authority’, can have a real long-term impact on your search engine rankings - not to mention your website traffic and core objectives. Just like traditional SEO the fostering of relationships and building of connections can’t be faked. If you’re looking for a quick SEO boost social media isn’t for you. It takes time, effort, and real communication. This is a long-term tactic (unless you’ve got access to lots of high authority and relevant social accounts), but for those invested in their consumers and social media, if done right, in my experience the SEO benefits can be very real indeed.