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18 Mar 2011

Social Reciprocity and Signals That Factor into Search

Social Reciprocity

Of late I’ve been delving into social signals and how they are used in search. Not a new concept, I know, but one that intrigues me. When I refer to social signals I’m alluding to what Dave Harry discusses in his post “Getting a Grip on Social Signals in Search“; social signals aren’t always ranking factors but merely available signals that may be used to enhance search.

Dave goes on to say that signals can offer additional key ingredients for search engines to glean info from including “discovery, trust concepts, temporal (velocity), context (semantics), and behavioral”. Imagine all the possible uses these social signals provide to search engines: discovering new sites or content, determining the success of a site or content, what users are saying semantically when they share information about a site or content, and their behavioral patterns for sharing.

Social Signals in Search

If you’ve been following the massive amount of blog posts during and after SMX West you’ll likely come across this gem from Matt Cutts: “We would love to use social signals more to help us be informed of exactly what’s breaking now“. In a logical mind one would assume that search engines, in order to do what Cutts wants, require each of the five areas that Dave discusses in his piece, right?

In the early years of SEO many indications of a site’s popularity depended upon the links pointing to a particular site. Links to a site = Popularity. Links, of course, are still a signal used to determine popularity but over the years indicators like social signals have been integrated to help with, among other things, relevancy and part of what Rand Fishkin discusses in his post about traffic source distribution.

For Bing, they’re looking at your network: user attributes and user actions. Who follows you? Who do you follow? What do you share? How often do you share it? “Like”s are certainly factored in, but don’t try to game the system they say. “Like” farms are easily detected. Bing uses Facebook and Twitter, and has said that they may use social search data to re-rank results (via SMX West 2011 coverage).

For Google, the same team that works on web ranking also works on social ranking. They are well aware of the issues of good and bad quality, as well as relevance factors in social media. Content on a page is no longer the only factor determining relevance; relevance also includes factors from the relationships you’ve built.

On SearchEngineWatch.com Gareth Owen shares his top 13 social media ranking factors for SEO which include:

  • Number of followers (Twitter)
  • Quality of followers (Twitter)
  • Number of retweets (Twitter)
  • Number of fans (Facebook)
  • Number of comments (Facebook)
  • Number of views (YouTube)
  • Title of video (YouTube)
  • Positive vs. negative brand mentions
  • Number of social mentions

While Owen does warn that opinions vary on this particular topic, the above factors (and more in his post) are certainly those that you can monitor and base your own insights on for more pragmatic data.

Social Reciprocity

The information, as a marketer, I’m most interested in is the behavioral aspect of social signals – social reciprocity factors. I’m convinced: social signals matter. But what is it that entices a user to organically produce these signals on a brands behalf and how can brands better integrate themselves into the conversation?

“Reciprocity in social psychology refers to responding to a positive action with another positive action, and responding to a negative action with another negative one.” – Wikipedia

At the core of social media are users. Your peers. Your prospects. Your demographic. What is it that entices them to share information about your site, your content, your stuff? We know that when this happens it’s a good thing, but what is hard to understand is why. Why and when does social reciprocity take place?

Positive Actions

Understanding the definition of reciprocity in social psychology allows us to see that positive actions cause more positive actions. What does your social public see as “positive”? Sure maybe I’m using the term loosely but in my opinion here are a few:

  • Information – Useful information to your demographic. That new great study that came out, research to help them solve a problem.
  • Humor – Laughter, sometimes it’s all you need to capture an audience’s attention and get them to share.
  • Humanity – Giving back to your community, donating, volunteering.
  • Savings – Helping your social public save money entices them to tell others to save money as well.
  • Advice – Well intentioned words of wisdom have share-worthy qualities.
  • Creativity – Unique and inspired creations are well received, epically to a high tech crowd like many of those online.
  • Memories – Sensory, short term and long term memories are key to capturing an online users attention. Create a memorable impression.
  • Opinion – While the seemingly controversial topics should be avoided (unless that yours thang), opinions are certainly share-worthy.
  • Recommendation – Friends recommend a variety of things to their friends, brands can recommend to their online public too.
  • Attention – Simply showing you care, with a little attention, can go a long way.

Each of the above come in different forms; from a tweet, e-mail message, or IM to a video, infographic, or image, each “positive” can be represented in a variety of ways and shared in even more. In my opinion, understanding more about why and what your social public share is key in having social signals work for your site and to round out an internet marketing campaign.

Am I way off base, or do you agree? Sound off, in the comments below.