Social Shares Trump Keywords in Google Search Rankings

In Google’s post-Panda/Penguin search algorithm, social shares are now more important than keywords. This is one of the takeaways from a comprehensive study of UK Google ranking factors by search analytics firm Searchmetrics.

The study was based on a data-set of 10,000 selected top-keywords, 300,000 websites and millions of links, shares and tweets collected in February and March of 2012. Searchmetrics aggregated billions of data points looking for the answer to one basic the question: “Which factors are relevant for a good ranking in Google search results?”

In part, the study found that social signals from Facebook, Twitter and Google+ now correlate very strongly with high rankings in Google’s index, much higher than keywords. In fact, 5 of the 6 top ranking factors were social (good-ol’ backlinks were the only non-social ranking factor).

This chart sums up the data:

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Advertising may be Harmful

Earlier in the year, Google announced it would be penalizing sites displaying too many ads at the top of the page, and the new study implies that this is true for even Google’s ad products. The study found that AdSense and Adblocks both had a negative effect on Google SERP.

Backlinks are Still Important

The number of backlinks is still the most powerful factor, although link quality is still relevant. Google seems to be is favoring a more natural link structure over perfectly keyword-optimized links.

Big Brands Get a Free Pass

It seems that pages associated with strong brands needn’t be as concerned with title tags, headings etc. According Searchmetrics, “this group operates under different rules.”

Keywords: Domains Still Good, Title & H1 Less So

Domain names with keywords strongly correlate to higher search rankings, much more so than keywords in the rest of the URL. However, keywords in the Title and the H1 tag are now weighted completed differently in Google results, and now have little impact on ranking. From this, Searchmetrics concluded that “to end up in the top positions you do not need a keyword in the title or in the H1 headline.”

Google+ Rocks, but Not Enough Data

The study found that Google+ has a correlation of 0.37 with search rankings, which would make it the factor with the strongest correlation. However, Searchmetrics CTO and founder Marcus Tober said this statistic needs to be treated with caution: “we have not included this figure in the overview because we consider it to be too unreliable. This is because Google+ does not currently have enough users and the possibility of a +1 leading directly to changes in SERPs follows accordingly, since pages receive +1s in the order that they would already be placed without them. When Google+ has values that are stronger and more independent from SERPs, these values will also be included in the overview.”¹

Looking at my own Google+ account, I could’ve told him that.

The study did go on to note that because Google is trying to make Google+ an important player, SEOs would be wise to keep an eye on it’s progression.


The SearchMetrics study ends with the CYA assertion that correlation does not necessarily equate to causation: “questions like ‘does a site receive social signals because it ranks well or does it rank well because it receives social signals?’ are absolutely valid and cannot be answered unequivocally with the current data.”

Caveats aside, it seems clear that social media is having a more powerful impact on Google search. This fact should not surprise when one considers Google’s Herculean efforts to breathe life into its Google+ social site (it must be galling to the Googleplex gang to know that the most important ranking factor on their own search engine is Facebook).

Given the relevance of social media generally, and social shares specifically, on search rankings, your brand would do well to focus on developing quality web-based content that is distributed throughout relevant social channels.

Aside from boosting social shares, disseminating rich content will attract still-valuable backlinks to your site. Finally, whether your business is B2B or B2C, you may want to spend some time developing a strategy to increase Facebook social shares.

Just don’t tell Google – they might get jealous.

¹ Econsultancy, “Social Shares Mean High Search Rankings” Stats

Ranking Factor graphs courtsey of Search Metrics


Comments: 14

  • I think the title of this article is misleading a bit, or maybe I’m just confused.

    Google has always looked at external signals (originally predominantly links, and now, according the research, predominantly social) in order to rank pages.

    Google has looked at keywords predominantly to determine relevance, or in other words, what the page is about so it can be grouped with and ranked against other pages about the same subject matter. That was the big difference between Google and the earlier search engines that focused purely on language on the page.

    Your headline is comparing apples (ranking signals) with oranges (relevance signals). Even as Google’s semantic capabilities have become more sophisticated, the algorithm still depends on language in order to know what a page is about.

    Maybe I’m missing something, so I’m happy to be corrected. Also not taken into account is the predominant editorial focus of a particular website, which is now crucial post-Panda. In other words, what your site is mostly about is also analyzed by Google, which again, relates to how well what you write about matches up with what people are searching for (aka keywords).

  • Brian,

    Looking at your comments again, I would also add that Google’s move to semantic search is its attempt to meld ranking with relevance- end users conducting queries are expecting as much.
    As its semantic search continues to improve, Google’s search engine will become increasingly dynamic,three-dimensional and, for lack of a better word, human, as opposed to the static, keyword-dependent two-dimensionality its previous algorithms. Given this, I would expect social shares to gain even more currency in the near future.

    Hopefully this helps clarify your question!
    Thanks again for your comments…

  • Hi Chris Horton,

    very interesting your study… I am not surprise like so much web2.0 like tweeters and facebook because it is the place where all customers stay and spend the time.

    Good news backlinks are still the core value for google…

    Of cousre google don’t like to much adsnese or affiliate in the page…

  • Linda says:

    Would emphasizing Pinterest help as well? It is the fastest growing in social media. Maybe that is why Google is pushing G+ so hard.

    • Linda,
      Great point. Google crawlers can’t search images, but any content written around them should factor in. It’s no doubt that continued user adoption of tablets and mobile devices tends to favor photo-rich sites. It would be interesting to look into this further.

      Thanks for the input!

    • Rob says:

      Er Chris, Have you ever heard of google image search?
      Have you not seen the drag and drop image search, similar images, google goggles, group images by subject?
      They aren’t backwards on images!

  • This is a great article. I wonder how it relates to search in the US market? Another thing I found interesting is how Google is favoring the ‘number of links’ over the quality of links. Am I understanding this correctly?

    • Well, sort of. I read the study’s findings as saying that, all things being equal, if your domain has 10 links and mine 100, odds are I have an advantage in Google SERP (PRESUMING my links are to sites that Google deems as having “quality” content).

      As many brands have recently found, Google is discounting links to overly-keyword rich sites. Google is trying to emphasis quality, original content over pre-fabricated content, as it is trying to “teach” its Knowledge Graph in order to provide users a better search experience.

      As such, quality of links trumps quantity, all things being equal.

      Hopefully that clarifies things a bit!
      Thanks for the comment,

  • Daria says:

    Thanks for the research Chris. Just wanted to clarify, on the chart it shows 3 different numbers on Facebook percentage. Just wondering what comprises “Facebook Total”? And what is the difference between Facebook Like and Share? I mean when you do any of the two, you still get to post the link on your Facebook wall. Thanks!

  • Deep linking to inner pages via Pinterest seem to work well from another case study I’ve seen. Going to test that out this coming week. Thanks for sharing this data with the class. :thumbsup

  • Mahfuz Ahmed says:

    Thanks for the analysis. Just desired to explain, on the data it reveals 3 different statistics on Facebook amount. Just thinking what consists of “Facebook Total”? And what is the change between Facebook Like and Share? I mean when you do any of the two, you still get to publish the weblink on your Facebook walls.


  • Creating articles that are not only optimized but content that are share-able will help you get higher rankings. It means that social shares definitely help but keywords are important too. Social networks sure do help boost your chances of getting found but you need to be found first and you do that by optimizing your articles with your targeted keywords. That being said, we shouldn’t stop on SEO and finish off with a great dessert (Social Shares)

  • I’m surprised this excellent article only generated 63 +1’s to date. It echos the sentiments of a few attorney’s in my G+ stream in that; they find link building is more influential vs. social signals and want to know when social sigs will trump links?

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