Likes vs. Links for SEO
A Case Study, Finally.
If you’ve read anything about SEO in the past few months, you’ve heard at least 25 gurus claim that “Likes are the New Links,” but where’s the proof? We decided to find out for ourselves and conduct a controlled, data-backed experiment.
Are Facebook Likes the new cornerstone of SEO, or are the gurus full of s#%t? Learn More–
Who Started the Stink?
Sometime around April 2010, guys like Rand Fishkin began innocently speculating that Google was going to begin counting “social signals,” i.e. Twitter Retweets and Facebook Likes, in their rankings algorithm.
*I refrain from the cliche link-spamming, because unlike email spam, most automated link-building tools create links that are not advertorial, deceptive or pushed on users.
The idea behind “Likes are the New Links” is that automated link building tools* are too advanced and the only way to combat their effectiveness is to turn to the relative purity of social networks. In theory, people don’t Like or Share low-quality content with their peers because they don’t want to be “defriended.” By this logic, “Likes” are a better indicator of quality than links. In reality, this is far from the case.
Over the following months, all of the usual suspects had something to say about social signals. The SEO “yes-men” followed soon after. To this day Sphinn is completely drenched in “Likes are the New Links” stories.
However, the tone of these stories shifted dramatically from “here’s an idea” to “this is the way it is!” when Bruce Clay, owner of the international goliath search agency, Bruce Clay Inc., loudly announced that “Likes are the New Links” on his blog and at numerous conferences. It helps that Bruce is a board member of SEMPO and has tenure at every major search conference (SES, SMX, Pubcon, you name it, he’s there), so when he wants you to know something about search, he makes sure that you do. On the heels of Bruce’s loud and confident assertion that “Likes are the New Links,” the whole industry burst into a roar of agreement.
With a blog post, a conference speech, and a few online videos, Bruce transformed “Likes are the New Links” from a speculation to a “Fact.”
Sounds Good, but Where’s the Data?
With SEO being a global industry consisting of thousands, if not millions of practitioners in 2010, how could there be so much hype about Likes vs Links without an ounce of data to back it up?
- Had anyone performed a conclusive, controlled study?
- Had anyone performed a regressive analysis on available data?
- Had anyone even conducted an anecdotal case study?
Not that I could find.
Source: Danny Sullivan for Search Engine Land
Besides Bing selectively displaying Facebook content on its SERP pages, and Google introducing Real Time search, for searching Twitter and other microblogging sites, there was absolutely nothing to substantiate the claims of Bruce Clay and his echo-chamber.
In fact, Aaron Wall, amongst other more sober SEO analysts, says that “Social Rank” is likely on its way out before it’s on its way in. To summarize his point, social networks are just as easily susceptible to aggressive manipulation as the link graph, if not moreso. What’s worse, it’s probably harder for any algorithm to determine what’s legitimate and what’s not in the social world. After all, a 19 year old gamer continuously tweeting alternating gaming rants and 4chan quotes and a bot doing the same would be hard for a human to distinguish, much less an algorithm.
Mythbusters: The Likes vs. Links Case Study is Born
Since nobody else was going to do it, we’ve taken the “Likes vs Links” question into our own hands.
The purpose of our case study is to 1) determine if Facebook Likes have any impact on search rankings, 2) if so, how much and 3) if combining likes and links is more effective than either one alone.
Our hypothesis is that “Likes” will have minimal or no impact on search rankings. We believe this because, currently, we have no reason to believe otherwise.
(Note: We’ve done our best to control all confounding variables. If you see any flaws or have advice for our experiment, feel free to put it in the comments below. We’ll do our best to implement it. The case study will run over the course of 4 weeks, so that we do not pass any judgements prematurely.)
- Find a Niche - We went on Google Trends and found a trending keyword for a niche health product, the kind of thing you’d find tucked way in the back of GNC with a name suitable for the next Harry Potter title. We wanted something low competition so that even if the impact was weak, it could still be measured.
- Buy the Domains - Personally, I don’t think Google prefers .com, .net, or .orgs for rankings, but some people believe otherwise. Therefore, instead of buying keyword.com, .net and .org, my partner, Dax, opted to buy keyword1.com, keyword2.com, and keyword3.com. This way each has the same TLD, and the number in the domain name affects each one similarly. We’ll release the domain names at the end of the case study so that readers can’t mess with the results during.
- Put the Content on the Pages - We created 1 spun article optimized for our keyword and outputted 3 variations to make sure the content quality, contextually relevant terms and keyword density were similar. For the uninitiated, when I say “spun,” I mean that we rewrote each sentence 3 times and randomly combined them to create unique articles (Shameless plug: this is something we do at The HOTH link building service). Each site got a standard WordPress install, using the default WordPress theme with mild customization and an optimized picture in the article.
<h1>tags were optimized.
- Day 1: Get Likes - On day 1, we went on a popular crowd-sourcing site and paid ~175 people to “Like” sites #1 and #3. These are real people with Facebook accounts, not professional “Like vendors.” At this point we begin documenting the progress of all 3 sites in the SERPs, including indexing and ranking for the exact match term.
- Day 15: Get Links - On day 15, we do 1 article submission for sites #2 and #3 (Shameless Plug #2: This is exactly how we do The HOTH Link Volume Module). We submit the article to enough directories to get ~175 article acceptances and links back to the respective sites.
- Day 29: Measure! Time to share what we’ve found. Make sure to sign up for our RSS Feed or Updates by Email to catch the findings of our case study.