I have long been speculating that social media’s influence on your organic rankings is real, and that quite frankly it makes sense. Put yourself in the shoes of search engines for a moment, considering the storied past of the algorithm and linking’s effect. The likely hood that more legitimate sites have an extensive social media presence, and that a less legitimate site (affiliate) will not, is high. And also take that same scenario into account when it comes to branding. Established sites will have strong brand signals and spammy sites will not. So looking to signals from social media makes sense as a quality and trust signal. Not the end all be all signal, and definitely not as strong a signal as linking, but a signal nonetheless.
I have also postulated that ranking increases gained from a social media push like a large amount of retweets, Facebook likes, etc., would be short term gains. Similar to the QDF factor. So while a nice social media effort around your site or a post or a keyword might provide a nice boost, that lift in rankings would fade away over a matter of days or weeks.
There have been various case studies coming out, ever since the search engines announced to the world that they are in fact using social signals to calculate organic rankings. But the more widely known study comes from SEOmoz. They noted a special instance where one of their guides was tweeted by a large publication with tons of followers. They noticed the spike in attention on Twitter and jumped on the chance to use this as a case study to see how it affected the rankings of that guide. Well the rankings jumped up significantly into the top 5 in Google for the term “Beginner’s Guide,” since it was their beginner’s guide to SEO that was promoted.
That ranking has died down and although it provided a nice jump in rankings in the short term, it does not stand the test of time. The ranking is currently at #12 as of the writing of this post. I have also heard that Google is noticing the location of the retweets and factors that in. So that a ranking will spike in Google US but not in Google UK because the large majority of tweets are from US accounts. I have read about this working the other way around too. So even if you have a US site but it gets retweeted all over the UK, then your rankings will spike in the UK.
The moral of the story is that social signals are great for rankings, trust, and authority. But the benefits in organic rankings will most likely be short lived. Linking is, and IMHO, always will be the most significant factor. Do not take this the wrong way though. I am still a huge advocate of social media as part of a holistic online marketing campaign. It builds your brand beautifully, allows you to scale even if you are a small shop, and generates traffic and followers. Just don’t bail on your SEO efforts in hopes that social media will provide you all the help that you need with rankings.