Links have been an important part of SEO for years. They show when a site is trusted, they show what sites are related to a business or brand and they have the potential to pass page authority along the chain. Followed links are particularly important, due to their ability to pass this link juice. Nofollow links are still important signals, but they don’t pass such authority. So, when you use a link on Facebook, is it followed or not?
A Short Answer
Well, no. Google, for a long time, refused to even index Facebook profiles or pages. Today, Google will index profiles and pages, but links are limited to nofollow status. At a few points throughout the history of the social media network, some links have been able to be set to dofollow, but those loopholes are generally removed.
A Longer Answer
Google does access and index some selective parts of Facebook. It can view your profile, on a limited basis, which is why you can find your profile by searching your name. Google also indexes brand and fan pages, which are more open by default. The search engine also indexes Facebook comments left on external sites using a plugin, but only if that plugin has incorporated the graph API to display the iframe-hidden text for indexing.
In fact, nearly every link on nearly every social media network is by default a nofollow link. The only links that pass authority are found on Google+. No surprise; the search engine wants their social media platform to gain traction, so they give it benefits.
Why Link in Social Media?
Google does, however, recognize that there are links on social media sites. This ties into a potential future update to the algorithm many SEO professionals are watching for. According to a recent Google patent, links are likely to see a little less influence in the coming months. Instead, the will exist more as indicators and less as specific connections. A link will count as a brand mention of the site, which itself is an additional signal Google is using to calculate authority. While the link itself may be nofollow and won’t pass specific domain authority, it will count as a brand mention and pass some benefit.
Additionally, links on social media profiles have never been specifically about the domain authority. If they were, the ease of posting a link on Facebook would eventually lead to a downturn in Facebook’s authority-passing capabilities. No, links on social media, Facebook included, are all about the social dynamic. You aren’t trying to attract a search engine with them, you’re trying to drag your social audience into an external site. This beneficial traffic is more potent than the page authority of a followed link from Facebook would be.
Beyond the Link
Social media has a lot of power in SEO, but Google definitively states that none of it is particularly taken into consideration for web search rankings. This is a change from past years, where some signals may have been considered. Google+ may be an exception, of course, as it often is.
The reality is, a piece of content performing well on social media is likely to rank well because of that performance. A post performing well on Facebook is drawing in a lot of traffic, which then takes actions that do pass ranking, such as linking from another blog. Users will also share content again, exposing it to an even wider audience, which increases the circle of influence.
SEO professionals like to track a wide array of social metrics.
- Number of followers or friends.
- Number of likes, shares, reblogs, retweets, etc.
- Number of comments.
These are all important for social media marketing. They indicate how well a piece of content is performing on the social networks. They do not, however, pass any particular power to the page via Google itself. Google doesn’t care how many times a piece of content has been liked on Facebook; it’s an irrelevant metric for search authority.
Looking to the Future
Matt Cutts said all of this in a video, but his phrasing has drawn interest from a few industry leaders. Looking into the ten year future, Cutts expects that Google will have a better grasp of the dynamics between people on social networks, and that search indexing may be better. In fact, one primary reason Google doesn’t track social metrics, and in fact avoids indexing most content in private Facebook pages, is the issue of identity, relationship and safety.
Cutts’ example, specifically, is that of an abusive husband. An ex-wife can shut down the privacy settings on her Facebook page to prevent stalking. Google could index at the wrong time, between her unfriending and her security updates, and thus her information would still be cached in the publicly-accessible Google results. This sort of scenario would be rare, but in the event it did happen, Google would rather not provide such ammunition to the abusive party.
Cutts expects Google will have a better grasp of identity and interaction in the future, but for now it avoids interacting with the social networks in a potentially dangerous way. Looking to a more recent future, however, what about individual social metrics? Might Google return to their roles of four years ago, where social metrics did have an impact?
Particularly, Google may be coming up with a way to involve semantic indexing for brand mentions and the like. When used with pages and shared content, rather than profiles and personal data, semantic interpretation allows a search engine to draw relevance and importance from posts and shares, without specifically giving power to shares, likes or links in a quantifiable way.
Speculation vs. Reality
This is all speculation, of course. Google currently does not follow links from social media sites, with the exception of a few particular types of links on Google+. Google also does not track or factor in social metrics such as likes, shares and reposts. While this could change in the future, so can anything else. If anything changes, it is likely to be the power of links themselves. Links will devalue, while semantic mentions will become relevant.
Brand managers, social media marketers and SEO specialists should continue using Facebook, of course. There’s simply too much organic power from an audience of millions. Even if the links aren’t followed by the search engine, they’re followed by people, and isn’t that what it’s all about?