Google’s Matt Cutts: Understanding Social Identity on the Web is Hard

How far along is Google from using social media identities as ranking factors? Can Google use engagement and follower metrics from Twitter and Facebook to evaluate the authority of an individual?

To me these were the “buried headlines” in a Google Webmaster Help video by Matt Cutts released today. Here’s the video. Scroll below the video embed to get my commentary and thoughts.

Are Facebook and Twitter Signals Part of the Google Ranking Algorithms?

That’s the question that Matt Cutts chose to answer in this video. Let’s break down the main ideas in his answer.

1. Facebook and Twitter Pages are treated like any other web pages for search. Tweet this!

First, we should understand here that when Matt says “pages” he’s referring to individual pieces of content on those social sites. So on Twitter, that would be a tweet. To Google, each individual tweet is a web page on its own. On Facebook a “page” would be any status update, reshare, link share, etc. you might see in your news feed. Each of the individual “cards” you now see in your news feed,whether from a friend, a Facebook Page, or a group, are each a “page” to Google.

2. Google can only index Facebook and Twitter Pages it can crawl. Tweet this!

And Matt made it clear that Google isn’t always able to crawl all of the pages on those sites. In fact, he shared that they had one experience where they were blocked entirely from crawling one of those sites (Barry Schwartz says it was Twitter) for about a month and a half. The fact that they could get blocked makes Google’s algorithm engineers jittery. They have to worry that they could get blocked again in the future. And something Matt didn’t mention here, but has elsewhere: even when Google is not blocked from Facebook or Twitter, it still sees an incomplete picture. Neither of those sites currently give Google access to their “fire hose” feeds that provide all of their content. So at the best of times, Google knows it misses a certain amount (perhaps a lot) from those sites.

Google doesn’t like signal sets with big holes in them.

3. Google does NOT currently use signals like Facebook or Twitter followers for search ranking. Tweet this!

At least, as Matt said, to the best of his knowledge. Why? Because Google will not use any signal to influence its search rankings in which it does not have high confidence. If Google can’t see all the connections and internal signals about content on a site, then it can’t have that kind of confidence.

In other words, because Google can’t completely crawl Facebook and Twitter, it inevitably is missing lots of data that it would need to do an accurate evaluation of the relative authority of pages within those sites.

Matt gave some examples of the problems that could occur if Google did try to use signals from those sites to rank content (and presumably, individuals, as we’ll get into below).

Problems can occur because social sites by their very nature are volatile. Numbers and relationships change constantly. Google visits each part of the web at “finite moments” as Matt put it.  They only see what is happening on a web page at the moment the Google bot visits it. Then the crawler bot moves on, and may not revisit the page for some time.

Say someone had a certain graph of followers at the moment Google crawled their profile, but then shortly after that, they did something that caused them to be unfollowed or blocked by a large number of followers. Or a relationship status could change. When you combine the facts that Google only periodically visits a site with how quickly things can change in social media, along with the aforementioned problem of Google getting throttled or blocked from these sites…well you can see why their signal confidence would be low.

4. “Because we’re sampling an imperfect web, we have to worry a lot about identity, when identity is already hard.”

I wanted to get that point as an exact quote. It’s what I’ve been trying to explain to many people with whom I interact who are convinced that Google must by now be using identity authority based on social signals as a ranking factor (for example, the much talked about “Author Rank”). Getting a usable, high confidence signal based on social profile identities is much more difficult than most people think. I think that’s why whenever Matt Cutts and other Google reps have talked about the topic over the past year, they have use highly qualified language, such as “we want to work toward” of “we are getting better at” assessing authority based on an individual and then using that as a ranking signal.

5. Social signal correlations with higher rankings for sites do not equal causation of those rankings. Tweet this!

Matt went on to make clear something that caused a fair bit of uproar online last year. Several sites, most prominently SearchMetrics and Moz published correlation studies that showed social signals such as Facebook Likes as one of the highest correlating factors for sites that rank highly in Google search. This caused many bloggers and social media commentators to jump to the conclusion that these social signals were a cause of the higher rankings.

Cooler heads (such as Moz’s own Cyrus Shepard) then tried to explain that a correlating factor doesn’t have to be a causal factor. The more likely explanation, given by Matt Cuts at SMX Advanced in 2013 and repeated here in this video, is that sites that tend to get high social engagement also tend to be sites that are so excellent that they also attract many other signals (such as links) that do actually contribute to search ranking power.

6. Be on social media not for search rankings but to build up your brand and drive qualified traffic. Tweet this!

According to Matt Cutts, their are very valid reasons for being active on all forms of social media even if they don’t, for now, have much or any effect on search rankings. An active social presence combined with good network building can be a major contributor to growing a brand reputation, better customer service, developing trust and authority, as well as bringing traffic to your sites via the links you post. Those considerations should all be part of any good digital marketer’s arsenal.

7. Understanding identity and social connections for ranking purposes is a long term project. Tweet this!

Does Google Use Facebook & Twitter Signals in Search Rankings?



This section (starting at about 3:20 into the video) is so important! Some commentators have been quick to jump on any hint from Google that individual authority as a ranking factor remains something Google is “working on” as “evidence” that “Author Rank must now be active!” On the other hand, those of us that have carefully followed this topic of author ranking from the beginning, such as AJ Kohn and myself, have cautioned all along that this area of identifying and rating authors by the perceived trust and reputation of their content is way more complicated than most people suppose.

While no one would like to see subject-area authority for authors become a rankings booster more than I (heck, it would probably help me!), I am not going to declare it “on” just because I wish it were. So I was happy to hear in this video Matt Cutts once again explaining that author authority is something that is going to take a long time to develop. In fact, he says it may only develop over the next ten years!

Conclusion: Author Authority Is Like a Fine Wine

As I said above, Google is very careful with their search results. There is no incentive for them to rush an incomplete and unreliable signal into their ranking factors, and plenty of disincentives. Accurately measuring and evaluating the complex signals that might indicate how authoritative an individual is, and especially in regard to specific topic areas, is hugely complex, and made all the more difficult when major areas where such signals exist are difficult for Google to access.

But that does not mean that Google does not value such signals. Every indication we’ve had from Google spokespersons, including Matt in this video, has been that the areas of social signals and author’s as subject authorities remain areas of intense interest for Google’s engineers. In his Pubcon Las Vegas 2013 keynote speech, Matt said that social signals should not be looked at for “short term” benefits (i.e., as a direct ranking signal) but rather as a “long term” play. In other words, over time Google will be watching to see who consistently gets good social signals day-in and day-out as an indication of who should be trusted.

Years ago, actor and director Orson Welles was featured in a series of wine commercials on TV that became pop culture memes long before the web. I’m referencing those ads in my own meme image just above. In the ads. Welles would pontificate on the extraordinary efforts the winemaker he was hawking went to to take the time to ensure the quality of the product. He would then turn to the camera and let us know that this wine maker “will serve no wine before it’s time.”

In like manner, Google will serve no ranking factor before its time. Social signals are important, and active use of social media for marketing is now essential, but invest in them for the long term, knowing that if you build real value that people value, over time that will become valuable to Google as well.

Go In-Depth on This Topic!

Does Facebook Activity Impact SEO?

Measuring Google Plus Impact on Search Rankings

Google+ SEO: How Google Plus Impacts Search Results

How Google+ Profiles and Pages Gain Search Authority

The Future of Integrating Search and Social

Comments

  1. says

    I watched the video. Just like blogging, providing real value to your readers on social media is what matters. However, i see now why Google is very much interested in authorship. Social media is really volatile with people spamming Facebook with duplicate authors, Google has no confidence in the identity of users on social media.

    . In the next 20 years, everyone person on earth will take authorship serious not just bloggers; If you don’t , you might regret being anonymous.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Ikechi. I agree that Google built Google+ (and instituted Google Authorship) in part to give themselves a better handle on personal and brand identity so they could better use those entities in search evaluations. But I think they are realistic enough to know by now that there will never be a time when everyone has a Google+ account. I think they are probably exploring other ways to verify and track identity as well, and that’s probably one of the reasons why they have held off on any kind of Author Ranking in search.

      • says

        I agree that everyone can’t join Google + Account for authorship. However I believe that sooner or later, other Social Media platforms coming up will take authorship serious (My Opinion).

    • says

      I think saying all that matter is quality is just plain wrong. I’m a lawyer. I see lot of legal sites that rank very well where the quality is just awful. Maybe one day it will be all just about quality. That day has not come yet.

    • says

      I’m afraid you’d have to be a lot more specific than that to convince me “SEOhog.” We rarely (if ever) can either see all the factors that might be causing a ranking change, nor can we always effectively isolate factors to make sure that what we think is the cause really is.

  2. says

    Question, Mark:

    Based on this statement “Problems can occur because social sites by their very nature are volatile. Numbers and relationships change constantly”, how’s Google+ any different as far as collecting any truly viable information about our social identities there, apart from the fact that it’s Google-owned property and Google has not problem crawling it?

    Hope my question makes sense.

    • says

      Hi Ann,

      Great question. I avoided getting into Google+ in this post because if I did, I’d still be writing it now, and I wanted to get it out while it’s still timely. And, of course, anyone that knows me knows how extensively I (and Eric Enge as well) have written on how Google+ interplays with search. I’ve now included links to some of those articles at the end of this post.

      I think the answer to your question is that Google+ gives Google a very clear indication of those things….within Google+. Or really, a bit more broadly, because as more and more people use the web while remaining logged in to their Google accounts, Google can get data from beyond just their G+ interactions. But they also have to be careful not to put undue weight on G+, as it would give a skewed view.

  3. Anthony Castelli says

    1.) Sometimes I think people forget it’s not necessarily what you say or do about yourself or your web site. It’s what others say about you. As for instance Leonardo Da Vinci . Just looked him up and did not see the carousel .

    2.) I had a hard time swallowing what Matt said. Don’t their analytics pick up referrers as twitter and facebook .

    • says

      Hi Anthony. I’d like to respond to your second comment. I don’t think Matt was claiming they get no data from Twitter or Facebook. But the data is not complete, and they can’t rely on it enough to use it as a signal. For example, they can’t see the vast majority of likes on Facebook.

  4. says

    I have a very short comment +Mark Traphagen. I spent time studying this video last night and was thrilled with all the points you mentioned. I knew your article would be a joy to read and you did not disappoint. Very valuable and clear post. Just saying I like your style and thanks!!

  5. says

    Hi Mark,
    Great summary of what seems to be a fairly important statement by Matt and Google. It seems as though social signals would be a natural progression for Google, and search in general, but it also appears to be clear that we are not there yet – despite the many articles that say otherwise.

    I appreciate the explanation of where we are, and where we may be going, and have really valued the work that Stone Temple has put into this area the past few months (year). Thanks to all and keep up the great work!

  6. says

    Great analysis, Mark. We need more level-headed thinking and explanation here. You nailed it with the point about Google not using signal that is incomplete. And on the other side, why would Twitter or Facebook possibly give Google firehose access? Don’t see that coming soon, if ever.

    • says

      Thanks Jay! That means so much coming from you. YOUtility has had a profound influence on me. I have tons of respect for you; in a world of social media “gurus” who don’t seem to know a tweet from a Like, you’re the real deal!

  7. says

    Over the years of doing SEO, i have learn to sorta listen to Matt Cutts and assume the opposite of what he say in certain situations. Stating that social signal don’t have an impact is a complete lie. I saw one of my tweet from a blog post get retweet near 200 times and my ranking for that post, almost over night drastically improved. So the way i see it, if he says it don’t help, it probably does…lol

    • says

      Hi Samantha, thanks for your comment. I’d be very careful about taking a few anecdotal incidents as evidence. Remember, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, and what you related is a correlative result. It could be coincidence, or more likely, that the retweets either resulted in links to your post or your post was of such quality that at the same time it was getting lots of retweets, it was also getting links and other signals that Google does use.

      Here at Stone Temple we did a highly-controlled test last year that confirmed no discernible ranking effect from Facebook activity. See it at http://www.stonetemple.com/does-facebook-activity-impact-seo/

  8. says

    Mark, did you test twitter? I would also concluded that Facebook links/shares has not shown me as much kindness as twitter. I do feel social signals, whatever they are, do influence ranking. If Google is looking for good content, and this content creates a great deal of shares; why wouldn’t that signal to Google that the content is of value. Everyone preaches that “Google is Content driven” why wouldn’t social shares indicate how good or great content is?

    • says

      Samantha, as Cutts said, they would like to make use of such signals, but they have to be sure of complete and unfettered access to have confidence in the signal, and they don’t currently have that. Obviously, if you’re only able to see a portion of the signal, you’re going to have a skewed impression.

      That being said, I do indeed think that they monitor as much of that signal as they can. A clue to that was Matt saying at Pubcon that having good social signals consistently, over the long haul, would be an indication to Google that you are to be trusted. So no to short term (it alone won’t cause an individual page of yours to rank better), but yes to long term (indication that overall you as a site or you as an author are to be more trusted).

      Of course, by “social signals” he could just mean Google+ ;-)

  9. says

    Even if Google doesn’t use social signals to rank pages, there IS a point to go info social because of several reasons. It will most likely use them or even uses now (not admitting it) to prevent SEOs from pushing to much on social websites – the reason number one. Another reasons is that Google might be using social signal in future, why not?

    • says

      Completely agree with you Helen. Social media is not just for SEOs, it can give you other benefits also and just like you said Google might be using social signals in future – as a bigger ranking factor.
      Thanks

  10. says

    I have been testing for MANY years and have had similar results as Samantha.

    In my testing the ONLY thing done was tweeting.

    When an initial tweet was made, nothing happened to the page’s position in the SERPs.
    When that tweet was re-tweeted by followers there was an amazing jump in position.

    My test page went from #27 to #1, but it only stayed there for 9 days and then fell back to it’s original position.
    The same thing happened when I used G+1 votes, but the drop was back to a couple of spots higher than the original.

    I think perhaps Google uses these indicators the same way they cycle the importance of topical news articles.

    Authority affects PageRank, but Google has told us, several times, that they do not include PR as a factor in computing SERPs.

    IMO – It is the referral factor and not just the links or the followers.

    Co-incidentally there is a new article on my LinkedIn ‘End To End Web Developers” Group, “Use These Citations to build Local Search Rankings!”

    • says

      Hi Reg,

      A lot of people “see” things that they have not confirmed with a properly conducted, scientifically valid study. Saying “something got retweeted and then I saw it jump in rank” is not such a study. Stay tuned, as Stone Temple will be releasing such a study about Twitter’s affect on Google in the coming weeks. Ours is based on controlled conditions, not “observations.”

      And “they do not include PR as a factor in computing SERPs”? Where are you getting that? Please send me the source of that supposed quote. PageRank is very much still the foundation of Google’s search algorithm. Perhaps you are getting confused with Toolbar PageRank?

  11. says

    Thanks for writing this Mark, great work and breakdown! I totally agree with the fact that social media is an amplification platform and strategy in terms of getting your brand and content out to masses in order to induce natural linking. And that is its impact on SEO. Nothing more at this point.

  12. says

    Hi Mark, I agree to Samantha. She experienced the effects on ranking through retweets, I documented the same via +1 and re-shares. The flux is not limited to a single blog post rather to each of the post (3-4) which shared on G+ followed by +1, comments are doing great in search results.

    May be you are right “By Social Signals , Matt just mean Google+) but in case of Samantha it was twitter.

      • says

        Hi Mark!!

        I don’t have any stuffs related to Samantha’s tweets and beliefs yet I can show you the a brief analysis if you need.

        I don’t think I can attach that here.

        Thanks
        Ranvijay

  13. Alex says

    Glad it’s complicated. Harder to game that way. There are a jillion people out there whose brains have been infected with an obsession to decode “the secrets”. And as any psychiatrist will say, obsessed people aren’t obsessed with the object (audience/visitors), they’re obsessed with themselves and the high of winning

  14. says

    I was so obsessed with the difficulty of getting quality links from social media that it has literally been giving me head aches. I’m convinced now that it’s not so important today. In a few years though things will definitely change. But I think I have some time and don’t need to rush to get high authority. Great content is all you need. By the way – great content you have in here!

  15. says

    Mark, I am a food blogger with a small ecommerce business. Although I don’t understand many of the technical aspects of SEO and social media, what you have said (and your response to the comments) makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you for the analysis. I will be following you from now on.

    • says

      That makes me truly happy Dorothy. I’m an ex-teacher, and nothing makes me happier than knowing I explained something in a way that helped someone to understand!

  16. says

    I think that until Google can successfully crawl both Twiiter and Facebook the way that it wants to, then it should not use them to rank authority. I feel like in time these social network sites will have more of a say in it, but at the minute I feel like they should be left out.

    • says

      I agree with Kenny. For as long as Google can’t crawl their pages, there isn’t much they can do or use in getting these social networking sites influence search.

  17. says

    This really is true of big organizations and corporations and it also is true of
    small mother and pop music organizations. Reciprocate – If a networking contact is helping you,
    reciprocate which help all of them back. More
    often than not, they may be able leave their e-mail address
    to receive revisions on their opinion or they may be able sign in due to
    their social media marketing ID (Facebook or Twitter).

  18. says

    Im confused, Should i focus more of my attention on getting more involved with social media or just continue with content marketing. Its a little frustrating. lol

    • Eric Enge says

      Hi Mark – Everybody has limited time, so the key is to identify a good starting place, one where you can see evidence of their being people from your target market present. Once you have done that, then focus on that one place for a bit and develop momentum. That place might be one single social media site, or perhaps a column in a pretty good site that reaches many of the same types of people who might be prospects for you. Don’t worry about doing it all, you don’t have to. You can read more about this type of thinking here: http://www.copyblogger.com/other-peoples-audiences/

  19. says

    Very interesting read, it does show why though Google is putting so much effort into the G+ platform and the encouragement of authors to set up verification etc. One would surmise that Google went you know what fellas, if this is going to be the state of play the only choice we are going to have is to implement our own social system no matter the flack or how long it takes to get traction.

    What makes all this even worse is the scare mongering which creates great confusion in the business place. Should I forget social media, is it all about them adword thingies, or why did we stop radio. It is all a marketing mix, it was simple before digital, we had a solid production to print it was known and easy.

    Yes for some commenters you do still and should be putting effort into social media if that is worth while for your business at that time. If you are a small business and screaming for cash maybe putting extra hours into the social media is not the best use of effort.

    Again what we mainly have is information overload and the use of statistics that can prove anything in any direction, thinking of the Gallop pole that was realised citing social media plays no role in the sales conversion funnel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*