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Social media as a ranking signal has been a hot topic of conversation in SEO circles for the past few months. Talk has occurred for years, yet both Google and Bing have recently confirmed independently that they use Twitter and other social media channels as ranking factors. We are also seeing many more instances of who in your Twitter network has shared a link.

Most SEOs have seen the effects of tweets. We could reference Jen Lopez’s article on SEOmoz, or Mike Pantoliano’s Excel Guide for SEOs as proof of the power of tweets, as both rank well for very competitive terms (beginner’s guide and excel guide, respectively).

I have seen some troubling SERPs recently, though, that have caused me to question the viability of using social media signals as a ranking factor.

First, though, let’s make some observations about social ranking factors, and then try to come up with some suggestions for Twitter privacy settings.

Some Observations

I recently searched my handle that I use for almost everything, “dohertyjf”. The first result was Twitter, and about 20% of the results on the first 2 pages were from Twitter, including some “personal” tweets. This made me look into the results for other people in the SEO industry, as well as doing some wider searching.

For those who are more widely published than I, the percentage of results was lower, yet higher than I thought. It was approximately 10% for Mr. Randfish and 12% for Will Critchlow. These results are probably a bit skewed since the SEO/SEM community is notorious for above-average Twitter use.

Out in “the real world”, I did not see nearly as many Twitter results for people, probably because of lesser Twitter usage. Yet if social authority is going to be a ranking factor (and who really knows what “authority” means to the search engines anyways) it is a fairly sure bet that we will be seeing these results appear more often in the future.

Follower and Klout Statistics (Find the odd man out)

Author Authority Statistics

6 Social Ranking Factors

So what are the search engines using to determine “author authority”? Using the above, here are some of my thoughts:
1) Number of RELEVANT followers for your industry,
2) Click-through rate of the links you share by relevant followers,
3) Your ratio of followers to followed contacts,
4) Number of retweets by relevant followers,
5) Your “type” according to Klout (celebrity, thought leader, explorer, etc)
6) And possibly the age of your account (hence why Charlie Sheen is not influential). (This is kind of like age of a domain when calculating domain authority, though Rand wrote a great expose of this idea here.)

The key word above is “relevant”. Charlie Sheen may have a lot of followers, but they are not focused in a niche. It seems that if Google and Bing can keep authority specified to a specific niche (for example, if RandFish tweets about a Seattle Seahawks blog, it will not help that blog’s rankings unless he is a Seahawks authority), then I think we can be sure that

I still fully expect to see more campanies starting to sponsor tweets from “authoritative” figures, which will undermine the notion of established authority, since brand loyalty can be purchased for the right amount. The notion of authority is obviously more complex than your ratio of people you follow versus the number who follow you. If that were the case, anything Charlie Sheen or Ashton Kutcher shared would instantly rank #1.

Questions and Concerns

First, popularity does not equal quality. The system can be gamed, if quantity counts. I know Google and Bing have both said that they are looking at author authority instead, which does alleviate some fears, but it remains to be seen how quantity affects author authority as well on Twitter.

We also must think of paid tweets. Shouldn’t these be treated differently from unpaid tweets? How are sponsored tweets different from paid anchor text links? How can this be moderated? My answer: it can’t be.

Some Proposed Solutions

I think Twitter needs to come out with a solution to what tweets can and cannot be indexed. This must extend beyond the current “public” or “private” overall settings for accounts. I’m not advocating a Facebook-level privacy scheme, but simply something more substantial than the current options.

One idea is to index tweets with shared links, but not index retweets or links between people starting with the recipient’s Twitter handle.

A further step would be to not index any tweet not containing a link. Keep other conversations and statements private, at least from the search indexes.

Or, a user could be allowed to let tweets within a certain list of contacts be indexed, but not other lists.

Some Final Thoughts

Social signals are a fascinating animal, and I think SEOs can leverage the power we have to find some truly great business and link opportunities through the power of social media. But let’s not get carried away.

Thoughts? Disagreements? I’d love your comments!