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Are Social Signals the New Links? In Short: No.

Ever since Eric Schmidt confirmed at LeWeb last year that social signals were being taken into consideration for SERPs, the SEO world has been rife with speculation and conjecture about the relative merits of social signals as compared to links. Some of the more excitable members of the industry even went so far as to declare the death of link-building as an SEO tool. In a recent interview, Google’s chief spam slayer, Matt Cutts, has attempted to dampen down the more extreme prognostications about the ascendency of social signals. Yes, social signals are being used to some extent, but the humble link still leads the way when it comes to determining SERP rankings, and it will for some years to come.

Social signals are signs of approval and relevance for content that originate from sharing and  “liking”, “+1ing”, and tweeting. The problem with social signals is that they are not an entirely clear cut way of determining the quality and relevance of particular pages. Cutts himself has said that +1s aren’t the best quality signals out there. According to David Harry over at Search Engine Watch, social signals are more likely to be used as an indirect indicator of authority rather than a direct signal. Social sharing is an inherently easy medium to spam with, and in the absence of other indicators, there’s no clear way to sort out the spam from the ham with regard to social approval. Social signals could, however, be used to assign authority and trust ratings to sharers, which would then enable the use of authoritative social media sources as a ranking signal, much like authoritative sites carry more link juice.

One take home from this is that spamming on social media should be avoided at all costs. For a start, it’s a terrible way to engage in social media marketing; a strategy doomed to failure, and it’s also going to have a negative impact on any authority that might attach itself to a social entity.

To be clear, although social signals are not the be all and end all for SEO, they do have some impact, which is likely to increase over time. It’s also important to distinguish between the benefits of social media for universal SEO purposes, and the benefits for personalization and marketing. Regardless of whether social signals are of much significance for non-personalized rankings, they are of huge importance for driving traffic and creating awareness, community, and engagement.

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