Social Signals Or User Experience: Which Way Is The Future Of SEO?

Nothing stands still in the industry of Internet marketing – especially not search engine optimisation (SEO), which has gone from black hat techniques to HTML tweaking and now quality content and links. So where is SEO heading to now, in the midst of revolutions such as cloud computing, social media, and mobile computing?

If there are two factors that can influence SEO in significant ways, it would be the actions of leading search engines like Google, and the non-stop developments in social media. Indeed, Google’s updates and its recently launched Knowledge Graph have shaken the established SEO world. Meanwhile, social media advances have made it certain that social signals – factors that hint on online social popularity – should become factors in search engine algorithm.

The Quality Advocacy

Google has always stood its ground that if your website delivers quality content and follows its guidelines (that basically boil down to not trying to trick its search spiders), your website will have its fair chance at ranking high in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs). Google, since its inception, has been trying to imitate how people naturally infer how important a document is, only the documents are webpages and the inference comes from an algorithm.

So it wasn’t a surprise when Google released wave after wave of Panda and Penguin updates in that it’s understood that they should always seek to improve their algorithms. It was just a shock how much it impacted a good number of websites that had been using more or less established SEO that they never thought would be hit by these updates.

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Google’s Panda and Penguin, and the Knowledge Graph

The Panda algorithm update is not really a one-off update, but a quality sifter that regularly fires off and sifts a portion of the indexed web at a time. The Penguin update is infamous for hitting ranking factors like links and keywords, and especially notorious for the announcement that Google will be retiring a ranking factor that has been significant in the past. What factor that is remains shrouded in mystery.

The gist of it is the Panda and Penguin tandem sifts content for quality in its copy and keyword usage (for example: optimising an article for a keyword that the article does NOT focus on), all in an effort to help improve the reading experience of a websites’ visitors. Inbound links are also being given a second look. The linking behaviour of websites (including frequency, sudden surges in links, and the quality of the sources of the links) is being scrutinised more carefully, to ensure that unethical link building does not give websites an unfair upper hand in SERPs.

As if the cutely labelled updates weren’t enough, Google also recently launched the Google Knowledge Graph – basically intelligent search that leaves behind string matching when handling queries and instead focuses on understanding what a search user is talking about. The Knowledge Graph “understands” the difference between the different meanings of the word “King” when used a query keyword – it could mean the generic label for male monarchs, it could be a sports team, or it could be a pub. The Knowledge Graph endeavours to show you what you want to see, so it presents what it has understood of your query and allows you to select which you actually mean. Some have gone on to say that through the Knowledge Graph, SEO is dead. But really, SEO can’t die. It can only change – and given the intelligent nature of the Knowledge Graph, keyword stuffing and other similar illicit ranking tricks are nearly inconsequential. Again, it’s all about quality, and of course, how you can ensure that Google understands the niche your website is on, which helps the Knowledge Graph in presenting your website as a result in SERPs when relevant.

Social Signals as Search Factors

Even during the earliest years of Facebook, much was already expected from the social media boom. But once Google itself went on with Search, Plus Your World and incorporated its own social platform Google+, using social signals as search factors had become a reality and not just expectant conjecture.

With Search, Plus Your World, Google factors in the social signals of your peer group, particularly through “+1s,” the Google equivalent of Facebook’s “Like” or thumbs up button. This search feature is radically different from Universal Search as it factors in who is searching, as each person will have a different social graph that ranks (or +1s) websites differently. You can search about what your peers have +1’d the most, instead of searching using typical algorithms.

The launch of Google+ in 2011 only served to solidify Google’s views on social media. Google+ is meant to be the all-in-one social sharing and streaming hub that leverages +1s. So far its capacity to challenge social media king Facebook remains subject to debate.

But when you check how social signals affect the SERP ranking of other search engines like Microsoft’s Bing or Yahoo, it’s plain to see that Google isn’t the only one interested in social ranking factors. Bing and Yahoo have their own search features where social signals weigh significantly more than in their Universal Search functions. We might not be there just yet, but in the near future social signals will be wedded to the core of search algorithms in all major search engines as a major ranking factor.

So: Quality? Social Signals?

Which way is the future of SEO? Is it all about quality now and the user experience? Should the focus shift towards social signals? Right now it’s a mixture of both, as user experience and social media is increasingly becoming intertwined. After all, when a user experiences something great in one website, he’s almost certain to share it to his social graph through one means or other.

What’s happening today is SEO is becoming more grounded on user experience, while social media continues to evolve. Social media is merging with industries such as ecommerce, marketing, and personalisation. Once we see the final result of the merger between social and search, we’ll most probably realise that the future of SEO isn’t one or the other – it’s both.

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