Mystery Solved? How Google +1’s (and Other Social Signals) Might Boost Search Rankings

I have long believed, but been unable to prove, that social signals support organic rank, making the repeatedly cited correlations between social and organic rank in Moz’s 2011 and 2013 ranking factors analyses both intriguing and maddening. In the absence of a clear causal mechanism, the correlation leaves my most important question as a marketing strategist unanswered: how much time, effort and money do I allocate to social and organic respectively, and what result should I expect to get back? Is social a brand and engagement vehicle with some indirect impact on numbers of new visitors, is it an essential part of organic search visibility, or is it both?

I decided to explore a simple explanation that argues it is both, and this post is my attempt to make the case and explain how it should affect social and organic strategy.
I first considered and rejected a number of the more obvious theories discussed in the comments to the earlier Moz Blog post:

  • Direct causal relationship: Google reads social activity and includes it as a ranking factor, at least as it relates to Google+. Google has denied this, so unless you’re a conspiracy theorist, this is a non-starter. Mark Traphagen’s finding that profiles and pages in Google+ have page rank and pass link equity is compelling, but the bulk of social activity still happens on Facebook, i.e.: a registration wall and a whole lot of nofollow tags away from the prying eyes of Google’s crawls.
  • Common causal relationship: some other independent factor (perhaps a strong brand) drives both social activity and rank, creating correlation but not causation. This is undoubtedly true to some degree, but it is also as vague as it is self-evident. Of course, you want a strong brand, and a strong brand no doubt helps with inbound links and other indicators of authority, but the question I’m interested in is how much investment to make – where and when – to accomplish what. This theory does not answer those questions, since you can’t index something a brand metric (say, recall) to a specific organic rank.
  • Indirect causal relationship: social activity drives some other action, such as inbound linking, that in turn affects rank.

The third is the most compelling, but I know from personal experience that there does not have to be any additional activity for something to rank. I saw a specific case of this earlier this year when a blog post I contributed to a corporate website with a domain authority of just 37 ended up ranking in third position on a fairly high-profile search term, ahead of Huffington Post and just behind a prestigious print publication with a strong online presence. The post was promoted solely through the company’s social media presence. The article received more than 150 likes, four tweets, just three +1’s (one of which was from the company’s own Google+ page), and not a single external link.
How is that ranking possible, unless social activity directly drove the rank? This brings me to a fourth theory:

  • Social activity creates user behavior that gives Google an understanding of the relative quality of content on third party websites, an understanding it then uses to order search results.

In order for such a connection to exist, there needs to be a mechanism by which Google can observe users interacting with content on websites outside of search. I decided to evaluate the privacy policies of Chrome and Chrome OS to answer this question: could Google use aggregate browsing behavior from these services? I take it as a given that they will if they can – Google says as much in its general privacy policy: “We use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users.” The privacy policy specific to Chrome reiterates the same:

  • Information that Google receives when you use Chrome is processed in order to operate and improve Chrome and other Google services.”

Google doesn’t collect general browsing data by default. However, it does if you sign in to Chrome:

  • If you sign in to Chrome browser, Chrome OS or an Android device that includes Chrome as a preinstalled application with your Google Account, this will enable the synchronization feature. Google will store certain information, such as bookmarks, history and other settings, on Google’s servers in association with your Google Account. Information stored with your Account is protected by the Google Privacy Policy [which, as noted above, allows Google to use it in improving its other services].

Google has been increasingly touting this feature of Chrome with TV ads that talk about the fact that you can move from one device to another with a single browser and pick right back up where you left off on the last one.

To confirm what is and is not passed back and forth between Chrome and Google, I monitored all http traffic sent to and from Chrome as I browsed the web. When I was logged in, every request I entered for a URL generated two types of entries: multiple commands to complete the search result as Google treated my typing as a query and then a Chrome sync operation with details on the URL visited. Clicks on links also produced the same sync operation. I then logged out and performed the same actions, and as expected, the search complete commands continued, but the sync operations did not.

With the number of people using Chrome and Android, this gives Google a significant body of data about time on page, time on site, and bounce rate. Is there any reason to think Google doesn’t mine the resulting aggregate data to understand how long someone spends browsing a page they are referred to from social media? It might seem intrusive, but Google does far more intrusive things, like serving ads based on the content of emails and using omnibox data (which are not immediately made anonymous) to improve its suggestions service.

There is no smoking gun here, short of gaining access to Google’s internal code or getting Matt Cutts to offer a concrete confirmation of the practice (although I’d argue his public statements about making great content and promoting it via social are in fact tacit confirmation); but the fact that Google’s privacy policy gives them the ability to use all data they receive to improve their services and the fact that Chrome gives them user engagement insights is enough evidence for me. If they can, they will. Period.

Assuming that Google uses the data as I’m suggesting they do, the implication is obvious: building a community via social media is a critical part of an SEO strategy, because it makes it easier for you to put your content in front of users (users who happen to be predisposed to engaging with your content in a positive way) and give Google insight into the quality of that content. If “all” you do is gather your existing audience into a cohesive community, build good content, and promote that content to your community, rank will – more or less – logically follow.

If you use Google+ as one of those distribution channels, you’re increasing the likelihood of putting the content in front of users who are logged in to Chrome, hence the strong correlation between +1’s and rank. Consider conducting hangouts if necessary to drive your audience to Google+, if they’re not already there. Consider paying special attention, too, to the engagement metrics for users who are accessing your site via Android – if they’re not strong, figure out why and address it, since those users are another segment likely to be logged in to Chrome.

Even if I’m right, this doesn’t provide any neat, simple tricks for ranking. It merely provides greater confidence in making the investment in the hard work behind these activities. It also means that content is a double-edged sword: if you put out bad content and promote it via social channels, it can harm your rankings just as quickly as it can help them.

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