The impact of social media on SEO has, and probably always will be, one of the most talked about topics in the internet marketing world with many saying that social media is a must and others claiming that it has no effect whatsoever...
First off, in reality, it's highly unlikely we'll ever know exactly what's in Google's algorithm unless someone works at Google, doesn't sign an NDA, and decides to share that information with us, that isn't likely to happen regardless of how many dodgy marketing companies contact you claiming that they do in fact have an inside man at Google, TBH if a marketing company claim this then they are likely to be out and out rouges and conmen.
So we're left to infer based on what Google employees have said and what we have in case studies/data. Google has repeatedly told us that social signals aren’t a direct ranking factor.
Let’s start with What Social Signals Do Google Count? Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s webspam team, confirmed that Google used links from Facebook and Twitter as ranking signal.
Fast forward to 2014. Cutts produced another video tackling this question. This time he said that Google treats Facebook and Twitter pages like any other web page for search, but not as a ranking factor.
In 2016, Gary Illyes, a Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, was asked if Google takes social into account for SEO. He then retweeted Cutts’ video and said: "the short version is, no, we don’t."
Since Google’s algorithm is so secretly guarded, we have to take these comments at their official word - that social media isn't a direct ranking factor.
But just because Google said that social isn't a ranking factor doesn't mean that it doesn’t impact rankings. According to Searchmetrics’ 2016 Rebooting Ranking Factors White Paper: “The correlation between social signals and ranking position is extremely high, and the number of social signals per landing page has remained constant when compared to with the values from last year’s whitepaper.
The top-ranked websites in Google’s rankings displays vastly more social signals than all other page. This is primarily due to the overlap between brand websites performing strongly in social networks and being allocated top positions by Google.” I believe the answer to this lies in the second word in that quote — correlation. Cutts hints at the same thing when he says, "It’s correlation, not causation." We know links are one of the top Google ranking factors. Google has said that social media shares don’t count as individual links. But there most likely is correlation here.
If you create good content, it will most likely be popular on social media, and people are probably going to like it and link it to — which does boost your rankings. So is it a surprise that sites with high ranking positions also have high numbers of social signals? It shouldn’t. It makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it is a direct ranking factor.