I've written before about how tightly interconnected SEO is with other online marketing strategies, but to reiterate, there are few strategies that only exist for search optimization purposes. Most SEO techniques, both on-site and off-site, double as tangential strategies; for example, organizing your URL structure helps Google properly index and understand your site but also helps users navigate, and content marketing increases your perceived relevance and authority in Google but also increases your reputation among your readers.
Most of these effects are well understood, even by relative newcomers to the SEO industry. However, there's one "tangential" strategy surrounded by misconceptions and popular myths: social media. Social media marketing is tightly linked to SEO, as many people (including myself) have written, but exactly how are social media and SEO connected? Does posting regularly to social media channels increase your website's rankings? Is it impossible to rank without social media?
The short answer to these final two questions is "no," but I want to dig a little deeper into what social media is and isn't as a complementary SEO strategy. To clarify, there are three major roles that social media can play as an SEO supporting agent:
1. Raw Information and Web Real Estate. First, let's take a look at how the information exclusive to social media can influence your search visibility, and I'll spoil it by saying it's not much. Contrary to popular belief, the information you post on social media is rarely, if ever, used by Google, and doesn't actively increase the authority of your domain--even when links to your website are included within the posts. However, there are a handful of exceptions and a handful of ways this information can be useful to you.
First, understand that Google treats some social content different than other social content. For example, some social media platforms, like Twitter, are fully indexed by Google--you might have seen an indexed tweet or two popping up in your search results if you were searching for a news event or information relating to it. Other platforms aren't indexed at all. Because of this, it is possible that some of your social posts will be indexed by Google, giving you an edge in search visibility if your tweets are relevant to user searches. However, don't get too excited over this--over 96 percent of all tweets go unindexed due to their low authoritative value.
It's also possible that your social profiles could aid in giving users more accurate information, albeit indirectly. When Google calculates your local rank and provides information to users, it relies on an external network of different third-party review sites and directories. Many of these directories, in turn, get their information from various web sources (including your social platforms). Because of this, complete social profiles can give you a slight edge when it comes to visibility and accuracy in online listings.
2. Social Signals. Social signals are another area ripe with misconceptions. It's popularly believed that having an article shared many times increases that article's rank in Google, but not so fast--social signals don't refer to the number of times users on a social network shared a piece from their own newsfeeds. Instead, it only refers to the number of people who shared it directly from your on-site page via social share buttons--something Google can accurately measure.
Even so, these social signals aren't a make-or-break figure in a page's rankings. The authoritativeness and quality of your content, your domain authority, and your inbound links are all substantially more important. There is, however, a way that the popularity of your article on social networks can help your rankings...
3. More Visibility and More Inbound Links. This is by far the most valuable way that social media can aid your SEO campaign. As you probably know, inbound links are the most reliable authority builders in the SEO world--as long as you earn them naturally--but it's hard to earn them without building them directly with guest posts or other means.
One way to increase the number of inbound links your website receives is to simply increase the number of people who encounter your content. Assuming the quality of your content is top-notch, and 1 in 500 people link to your page as a result, increasing your audience by 5,000 will earn you 10 brand-new inbound links (all natural, from all different sources). Technically, social media is not responsible for this effect; it is only facilitating conditions that allow this effect to increase in frequency, but it's still a very valuable part of your long-term strategy.
Again, this social media role is wholly dependent on your ability to produce content that people actually want to link to. If your content is link-worthy, you'll have no problem increasing the size of your audience over time, getting more people to share your content, and eventually earning more inbound links with every new piece of content you syndicate.
There are some subtle semantic differences at play here. You can say that social media increases your rankings because it allows more people to see you, which can increase the number of inbound links pointing to your site, which in turn increases your authority. But you can't say that social media affects your rankings directly--and this is something Google has officially dispelled a number of times. Learn from these lessons in SEO-social relationships, stay active on social media, and never rely too heavily on any one strategy to increase your rankings.