Google's ranking algorithm is something that seems to occupy my thoughts more and more recently. It's like trying to work out the recipe for Coca Cola or the clues for Forrest Fenn's treasure.

Until the start of 2014 It was widely believed  that signals from social media sites played a part in helping a website to rank in Google's search results. A like on Facebook, a big following on Twitter; all this could influence rankings in SERP's.

Unfortunately the existence of this has been quashed, but in my mind it could still be a fantastic way of allowing people to influence what should take the top spot in a Google search result. 

But this got me thinking further? Will Google ever be able to use social signals as a tangible and reliable method for ranking websites? Although it might seem like a great idea it might be a fools errand. 

Lets start at the beginning...

What we do know is that the biggest part of Google's secret algorithm recipe is links, and that gaining links for a site is ultimately the goal for many online marketeers.

I say links, it's not gaining links directly but often persuading the people who have the authority to give links to provide one.

From the humblest blogs to the biggest news sites, there are around 180 million websites currently active on the world wide web (as of Jan 2014). But the number of people who have the ability to add a followed link is only a fraction of the total population of the web as there are somewhere in the region of 2.4 billion people are active online.

That's 2,400,000,000 people.

Now some websites are manned by a single person, and some huge websites have teams of hundreds. Trying to work out an average of how many people have the authority to give a link is a hard one, but putting those two numbers side by side means that people on the web far outweigh the people running websites with the authority to give a link.

What about the others?

So what about the others? All those people those that don't have the ability to provide a link? Shouldn't they be able to offer their opinion about what constitutes popular high quality content which could help to directly lift a page to the coveted Number 1 spot in Google? 

The way to do this...using social signals.

But if the entire population did have a say and not just the the link holders, then how Google go about doing this?

The easiest answer would be to use the human data that comes from the big social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. As mentioned at the start of this post, it was thought this was already the case and your actions on these sites provided a direct positive social signal which was then taken on board by Google in determining if a site should rank higher than something else.

That was until Google publicly announced that in a nutshell it doesn't do this and that these social networking sites don't directly influence the ranking algorithm. The original video is here for the reasons why is worth a watch:

The Social Signals Challenge

The easiest way to work around this to start reusing social signals would be to naturally use Google+, something which I would think that Google have complete direct access to which gets around the issues raised in the video above. 

Even if you did have access to this data though there's two big flaws:

  • It's not enough people
  • It's not representative of the wider population. 

If around 2.4 billion people have access to the internet and even if Google uses its entire Google+ audience as a dataset to influence ranking factors and then extrapolates the data would that make a valid audience to use as a way to determine the popularity of something? 

That's still a fraction, a minute fraction of the overall thoughts and feelings of the world. 

People also tend to cluster around certain sites. Millenials use Snapchat. Mothers use Mumsnet, that sort of thing, making the audience of Google+ pretty unrepresentative of the population as a whole. 

But what about the world outside of the web? 

Population Stats Pie Chart

Take the world population as whole. It's thought to be just over 7 billion people. meaning there's still 4.6 billion people who don't have access to the internet - yet. 

From a business perspective that's huge. As well as providing an amazing revenue opportunity it also means that twice as many minds who could out-opinionate any of the current thoughts and feelings of those currently using the web. Although 100% of the total population won't ever be all online it is a growing number as more people gain access to reliable internet access. It is something though which needs to be taken into account when planning for the future as these new voices will be making themselves heard online. 

Social Signals - Take 2. 

At the moment, I can't see a way of making social signals on any site, even in Google's control, a useful way of using the data as a positive tool for ranking factors. It's just in the hands of too few compared to the wider population of the web. 

Trying to develop a data source to plug into the algorithm which has a near universal appeal seems pretty impossible at this stage. The only way to do it would be to negotiate direct access to a huge number of different social sites from across the world. Aside from the legal and logistical challenges this would throw up, it would result in an absolutely colossal level of data to sift through.

Coming full circle though, Google does have an impressively complex algorithm which explores the link network. Although it's by no means perfect it is improving as time goes by.

How Google moves from here is anyone's' guess, but at the moment I can't see it being accurately done. Thoughts? Opinions? Add them onto the comments below.

Image credit: James Cridland | cc