Social Shares: The New Link Building

The web is awash with articles about how “social shares” (aka – mentions and link sharing on popular social networking sites) will be the “next big thing” in the world of link building.  But do you really think that Google’s going to be gamed by the thousands of “+1” votes or hundreds of automated followers you bought off of Fiverr or a related site?

Here’s the real deal on how social shares could influence link building, as well as where the opportunities lie to promote your brand successfully…

Goal #1 – Increase Overall Total Shares

Although it’s thought to be a relatively soft signal, there are some indications from both Google and Bing that the total number of social shares your content receives on Facebook, Twitter and G+ is used to demonstrate social authority.

Obviously, using the total social signals metric as an indicator of authority has its limitations.  It’s incredibly easy to game the system by purchasing followers or by incentivizing social sharing in a way that goes against Google’s recommendations for link building.  At this point, though, it isn’t clear how effectively Google and the other search engines can separate purchased shares from legitimate signals.  However, if they can’t yet, it’s likely they’ll be able to do so in the future.

Because of this, it isn’t a good idea to go out and purchase social signals.  Even if they do lead to a short-term improvement in rank, odds are they’ll be devalued at some point in the future, leading to wasted time and money.

For this reason, it’s a much better idea to encourage the social sharing of your content using calls to action and social plugins, but to focus on building momentum naturally.  To do this, be sure your website’s blog makes use of tools like Digg Digg or ShareThis which allow users to quickly spread your articles across their favorite social networking sites.

It’s also a good idea to integrate specific calls to action into your blog posts.  You might be surprised how effective adding statements like, “If you enjoyed this article, please click the icon below to share it on Facebook,” can be!

Goal #2 – Increase Perceived Authority

One of the biggest advantages of social networking sites is the way they break down communication barriers and enable you to easily reach out and connect with new audiences who may go on to share your links.  For this reason, using social networking sites to increase your perceived authority is just as valuable as working to increase the number of times your content is shared.

In addition to confirming that social signals play a role in the SERPs ranking algorithms, both Google and Bing have also indicated that the relative authority of a user factors in to how heavily these signals are weighted.

Evidence for this assertion comes from a December 2010 interview of both Google and Bing representatives, as carried out by Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land.  In response to the question, “Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who tweets it?” the representatives responded:

“Yes.” [from Bing]

“Yes we do use this as a signal, especially in the “Top links” section [of Google Realtime Search]. Author authority is independent of PageRank, but it is currently only used in limited situations in ordinary web search.” [from Google]

Being perceived as an authority figure on popular social networking websites clearly offers a number of different advantages.  Not only will your number of social shares increase as your total follower count goes up (as people are generally more likely to share content from the industry leaders they look up to), the mere fact that you appear to be a thought leader is reflected in the increased weight given to your social signals.

Obviously, though, increasing your social authority on these sites requires time and effort, as you’ll need to invest energy in connecting with new people and publishing varied content that improves your reputation.  However, as these efforts are no less time-consuming than traditional link building (and may ultimately lead to more viral link sharing and your content’s inclusion in more personalized SERPs), it’s clearly worthwhile to invest your energy in this pursuit.

Goal #3 – Connect with Authority Users

If one of the biggest advantages to social networking is the low barriers to communication that allow you to reach out and connect with potential new followers, it stands to reason that this situation can be manipulated in the opposite direction as well.  By connecting with other authority users on social networking websites and getting them to share your content with their followers, you could multiply this effect even further.

According to SEO expert Eric Enge, writing for Search Engine Watch:

“There are many reasons to engage in social media, including those that go well beyond SEO. You can get significant direct traffic, you get branding value, exposure to your target audience, and more.  However, getting an authoritative person in your space to share your content will probably be a big win, and this is an excellent goal for your social media campaigns.”

Of course, you probably already have an idea of how successful you’ll be simply dropping an authority user a line and asking him or her to share your content without having built up a relationship first.  These authority users are busy and their reputations are on the line with every tweet or status update they post.  But while they may be incredibly picky about the content they choose to share, this shouldn’t discourage you from pursuing these valuable opportunities.

Instead, take the following steps to increase your likelihood of having an industry authority figure share your content with his followers:

  1. Identify authority users – To begin this process, you’ll need to identify a few potential authority users to connect with.  Keep in mind that not all thought leaders will be a good match for your business model or your audience, so keep an eye out for participants who are viewed as authorities on the specific topics around which you want to build your own perceived value.
  2. Build your relationships slowly – The best way to catch an authority figure’s eye is to promote his content.  Share posts from his blog with your audience, retweet his Twitter content and generally do your best to build traffic to his website ahead of your own.  You can also begin to encourage a relationship to develop by leaving thoughtful blog comments or responding to social networking site posts in a way that complements the authority figure while still asserting your own expertise in your niche.
  3. Reach out when opportunities to benefit both parties arise – Don’t expect your chosen authority figure to simply share your content unless there’s a significant value for his audience as well.  For example, if your chosen leader has recently published a “tell all” piece on a hot new topic in your industry, ask him to promote your article on the same subject instead of the tired old “evergreen” article that’s bumming around your blog.

As with all of the strategies discussed for improving your social media results, building relationships with authority figures in order to get them to share your content takes time.  However, the instant surge of traffic and increased overall perceived authority will likely make your efforts in this arena well worth the time invested!