When performing our SEO overhaul, we looked at our most popular content and asked ourselves a number of simple questions in the format of: why do some posts have X, but not Y?
This took on a number of combinations, like looking at why some posts in our Top 50 have bounce rates of 70%, but others have 98%.
Or why we make affiliate sales on one product review and not another with similar traffic.
Or why some articles get tens of thousands of impressions in Google per month and a 10% CTR, but others get 0.1%.
As with everything, we could go on.
One question we asked ourselves along this line of thinking was: “why do some posts with high social share counts have Google traffic while others do not?”
When looking at this one, a secondary question came about: did the high social share counts trigger Google rank in the first place?
This one stopped us in our tracks because we instantly remembered many cases where this indeed happened (or at the very least, appeared to happen), and we decided to look into it further.
Before we get into this one, we know that this is a hotly contested topic as most “experts” will tell you that your social share count has little if anything to do with how you rank in SEO. Our experiences tell us otherwise, and that is what we're going to get into today.
Unlike other posts in our Blog Your Trip series, where we actively test our theories to provide definitive results, this one should be taken more as an opinion.
Comparing Social Share Count with Google Traffic
To jump right into this one, it is best to start with our own data. We operate two travel blogs with one being focused in the global niche (and now lifestyle design and blogging tips- Living the Dream) as well as one being focused in a local niche for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Discover the Burgh).
Our top 10 articles by social share counts are as follows. For each, our monthly clicks from Google are also included with equivalently popular posts in bold:
- Paris Restaurants – 5,500 social shares – 0 monthly clicks from Google (one of our least popular articles in Google*)
- Phi Phi Islands – 5,500 social shares – 399 monthly clicks from Google (#16 most popular)
- DIY Travel Pin Map – 5,300 social shares – 663 monthly clicks from Google (#5 most popular)
- Things to Do in Las Vegas – 4,100 social shares – 24 monthly clicks from Google (#165 most popular*)
- Things to Do in Mauritius – 3,700 social shares – 606 monthly clicks from Google (#8 most popular)
- European Food – 3,600 social shares – 4 monthly clicks from Google (#287 most popular*)
- FAQ About the Everest Base Camp Trek – 3,200 social shares – 450 monthly clicks from Google (#13 most popular)
- Budapest is One of the Best Cities in Europe – 2,800 social shares – 450 monthly clicks from Google (#12 most popular)
- Visit Egypt – 1,800 social shares – 30 monthly clicks from Google (#141 most popular*)
- Vieques Beaches – 1,750 social shares – 5 monthly clicks from Google (#279 most popular*)
As far as the make-up of the above social shares are concerned, the vast majority came from Pinterest (Living the Dream's most popular social network), and we can say that it stemmed from our own efforts there vs. something more organic (read our Tailwind review for more on this).
Google traffic generating more Pinterest shares likely occurs now that many of these are indexed (again, we push Pinterest shares in the posts too), but we have to say that in our experience the Pinterest traffic came first, and Google then followed for the half that receives traffic.
Now, as you will rightfully point out, it is still only half of our top 10 social posts that have significant traffic coming from Google.
It isn't great, but that tells us that perhaps we're targeting the wrong keywords for the remaining five and should look into more keyword options. Perhaps we are able to rank for “Phi Phi Islands” much easier than “Paris Restaurants” or “Things to Do in Las Vegas.”
If you take a moment to stop and think about it that would make a lot of sense as those terms are far too popular for us to likely compete.
We're going to return to this later on, but for now I want to share the same analysis on our local blog. We repeated the above on our niche website with the following results:
- Strip District Guide – 22,350 social shares – 2,250 monthly clicks from Google (#2 most popular)
- Pittsburgh Restaurants – 10,400 shares – 1,670 monthly clicks from Google (#3 most popular)
- Pittsburgh Breweries – 9,200 social shares – 2,500 monthly clicks from Google (#1 most popular)
- Beto's Pizza Review – 9,100 social shares – 29 monthly clicks from Google (#74 most popular)
- Best Reuben in Pittsburgh – 7,600 social shares – 105 monthly clicks from Google (#34 most popular)
- Streets to Visit in Pittsburgh – 6,200 social shares – 116 monthly clicks from Google (#3 most popular)
- Pittsburgh Wineries – 6,000 social shares – 421 monthly clicks from Google (#10 most popular)
- Construction Junction – 5,800 social shares – 29 monthly clicks from Google (#75 most popular)
- Primanti Brothers Review – 5,500 social shares – 7 monthly clicks from Google (#187 most popular)
- Pittsburgh Skyline Views – 5,400 social shares – 67 monthly clicks from Google (#45 most popular)
- Pittsburgh Food Trucks – 5,400 social shares – 51 monthly clicks from Google (#53 most popular)
As far as the make-up of the above social shares, the vast majority came from Facebook (Discover the Burgh's most popular social network), and we can say that this is from our viral shares on our Facebook page of over 100,000 fans.
Like Living the Dream, we can say without a doubt that the vast majority of our social shares came before we were indexed with any prime placements in Google as well. And like on Living the Dream, roughly 50% of our articles receive a significant number of clicks per month from Google now that we are indexed.
In this instance; however, we do rank for competitive terms like Pittsburgh restaurants, Pittsburgh breweries, and so forth. For our niche they are quite competitive and popular, but on a global scale they really aren't (Pittsburgh restaurants vs Paris restaurants are two different beasts) and we have thrived from that fact.
Now, the ones that don't rank have a different reason than those on Living the Dream, and that is because the search volume for the target keywords are quite low to begin with.
We often rank first page for Beto's Pizza and second page for Primanti Brother's (two local institutions), but it is a small number of people searching for them overall, so obviously our conversion will be quite low versus the broader terms.
Could we change these to target something a bit more search friendly? Probably not. We knew going in that many of our posts on this site will have little to no Google traffic, and we're quite okay with that.
Why We Believe Social Triggers Google Rank
Just looking at this data, you could make an argument that there is no correlation between the two. Maybe our sites are optimized for SEO outside of this and some terms are ones we can rank for while others are not.
From looking at the above data, there really is no indication that the social shares had any contributing factor. But one event really tipped us off to our current thinking that social share count matters as a ranking metric, and that is for our Pittsburgh Strip District guide.
We first shared this one on our Facebook page in January 2016 (the blog was about seven months old at the time). At the time we had roughly 5,000 fans and our site was receiving 20,000 page views a month. We were receiving very little, if any, Google traffic, so it is pretty safe to say that our SEO was not that great at that point in time purely because our site was so young.
That share went viral on Facebook.
In just a few days we had received roughly 10,000 page views and several thousand social shares on the article (I can't track the exact figure for social, but I'd estimate it was around 5,000 if memory serves).
We ranked first page on Google a few days after that and sustained our Google traffic to that post ever since.
Over the last few years we've had this happen on a number of other articles, as well as on colleague's blogs we know of, and a similar trend continued to appear to us:
- Go viral on social media and rank in Google for targeted keywords a few days later.
Seems simple enough- or is it?
Is Anything Else at Play?
Now, when it comes down to it we have to ask a question: Can we definitively say that social share count solely boosts your SEO rankings?
No, we can't.
In all actuality it is probably a mix of social share count and people actually going to your site from said shares that triggers the initial ranking boost, and then traffic from search locking you in at your new rank.
We think this because we've seen posts go viral, get a ton of traffic, and jump to the first page as per the above. But as the social traffic boom subsides, they end up dropping back down to page two, three, etc.
If we share that same article on social media again later to another traffic surge, we see the same thing happen- a quick jump in Google and then a steady drop over the coming days and weeks as popularity dies down.
We could see Google not using social count as a ranking metric on its own as it is easy to game.
We could also see them not using traffic as a ranking factor as that is also easy to game.
But couple them together as traffic coming to a post with high social share counts, and originating from the very same networks, well, my guess is that Google recognizes that and wants to see if their users will find the content interesting as well.
That last part is key, as we view a rankings surge only as Google testing your article out. If you get traffic from Google, you stick around. If you don't, you drop back.
This is where good SEO comes in to play as you need to be targeting the right keywords to rank for terms people are actually searching for, and have good copy that entices them to click when you get a good placement!
Do this and a viral surge could lead to sticking around on the first page for a search term you otherwise may not be qualified for!
A Working Theory on Share Counts and Search Traffic
Up until this point in this article I've been attempting to interpret our experiences to provide a logical explanation for why our Google traffic has gone up for certain posts after they get shared on social media.
Now, I want to bring in those articles that have not received rank but target popular keywords, and attempt to provide an explanation that ties it all together.
But I want to preface this in saying that while the above was all based on experiences we've had, the below is simply a theory we're pulling out of the air. I have no data to back this up, but I suspect that something like the following comes into play with the algorithm:
- For any given search term, there is a minimum combination of social share count and corresponding traffic from 3rd parties that must come in to play to make it a ranking factor (for an initial surge at least).
Visually, we think it'd look like this:
To explain the image above, if we were to hypothetically publish a new post targeting search term [X], one with medium competition (a fictitious SEO score to rank on the first page is illustrated by the blue column above), perhaps our site's overall SEO score may be enough to get it to page 5 (illustrated by the red column above).
Good, but not there on its own.
But if the above theory holds true, perhaps 5,000 social shares and corresponding traffic may increase our effective SEO “score” to get the post to page 1 (the added boost illustrated by the yellow column above).
Once we get to page 1, it is up to how well we perform with Google's users to determine if we stick around.
Now, if we replaced that medium competition term with one that had extremely high competition, like our Paris restaurants example earlier on, perhaps we'd need 20,000 social shares to get a viable ranking boost. Or 100,000. Or perhaps the number is impossible to reach because the competition is simply too fierce for that keyword such that social signals provide no added value at all.
In that case, it'd probably look something like this (with your site's effective score, the red column, being the same as above):
In these cases your site's SEO signals (red column) are simply too low to get anywhere close to ranking, and no matter what kind of boost you get from social (yellow column), you won't get to where you need to be to rank on page one. Maybe it'll help you go from page 50 to page 25, but in the end, that will get you precisely zero traffic.
In this instance we are not trying to imply that first page terms have hundreds of thousands of social likes/shares, but rather that the site's underlying SEO is just that much stronger overall and social ranking boosts are ineffective. (This is also a good indication that you should try a less competitive keyword, which is what we're going to do with the articles we don't rank for from above.)
If you really stop to think about it, this could make a lot of sense to try and explain how Google tries to factor in social popularity into the algorithm, for an initial placement at least.
But at the end of the day it is all about the competitiveness of your chosen keywords and how well you convert once you do start to rank.
That one is, as always, on you.
Does It Really Matter?
When it comes down to it, this post is not so much one of our usual blogging tests as more an observation into a long standing argument you'll find on the internet.
Some people will claim up and down that social share count and 3rd party traffic has no merit on Google rank, and that any placement is from other SEO factors alone (our red column above), but our experiences tell us otherwise that social signals do play a part into how you can get an initial rank for target keywords.
A crazy popular post may not result in you always being ranked on page one, but it could get you there for a while. From there standard SEO practices and users actually converting to your page should get you to that coveted long-term placement.
If our theory is true, all social popularity does is help give you that shot.
In a competitive market, we'll take any edge we can get!
Have you experienced this on your own blog or have a different theory to share? Comment below to let us know about it!
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