The search engine is undoubtedly the most common way that people find information these days. A simple key phrase now pops up content in real time with unprecedented accuracy. It wasn't always this way. Only 10 years ago, Google had a much different methodology on how they matched search terms to websites. The search engine giant that once relied exclusively on link exchanges and contextual matches, to parse search results now seem to believe that social media signals improve relevance of search results. This news isn't anything new, people have talked about Twitter's impact on search relevance since 2009, and most traditional SEO executives haven't shifted away from link building they have just ramped up their social interaction.
There is no definitive way to prove that Facebook and Twitter links are the new form of link building, but it makes sense. From Google and Bing's standpoint, what would you rather index and return results for? A meticulously crafted piece of SEO friendly content, from a high power domain, cleanly linked with followed attributes; or a piece of content that is highly viral, shared around the web via Twitter and Facebook. Chances are....Both.
Traditional SEO link building is a way of the past. Delegating your tasks between SEO link building and social optimization should be around 50/50 at this point. Social media provides your website valuable links on top of social signals. Links from social media can be valuable for SEO regardless if they are nofollow. According to Rand Fishkin's SMX Keynote, 40% of domains in their test set had only followed links and those URLs tended to have lower search rankings. Furthering the notion that it is not "natural" to only have followed links to your site; and that a healthy mix of both followed and unfollowed links provide the best SEO benefit.
It can be safe to assume that Google trusts links from social media equal to or more than they do that of a purchased link. According to Search Engine Land when asked about tracking links shared within Facebook, "Bing: We look at links shared that are marked as "Everyone," and links shared from Facebook fan pages." Facebook seems to be a relevant and credible source for search engine data, and according to Rand Fishkin, the number of Facebook shares and your page authority are the two more important factors correlated to search rankings.
The ideas presented here aren't necessarily new and innovating they simply serve as reinforcement that people are talking about social and search. In fact so many people are talking about this topic that, understandably there are critics. The critics claim that Facebook likes require much less effort than link building and that they are easier to manipulate. For example companies that want to build likes will simply offer promotions, "get $5 dollars off if you like this product" ramping up their search rankings. Is Google prepped to take on companies that violate their terms of service? Is like building via promotions even violating Google's terms of service?
When building your social media strategy to capture likes, think in terms of public relations not SEO. Search engine optimization is a systematic approach to disseminating links across the web, and although Facebook likes are vastly similar to links, if you think from an SEO perspective you will be limiting your opportunity. A PR approach includes targeting brand influencers to spread the word about your company's message.
Focus your messages internally and optimize your content for going viral. Add an opinion at the end of each article. Re-purpose some popular content, or create a sticky headline. The possibility to rank for content is endless; you no longer need a full force link building team to succeed. Integrating elements of traditional SEO and optimizing your content to be "liked" should keep your content streaming through social channels.