By Kelvin Newman, Director of Strategy at digital marketing agency, SiteVisibility

When Google announced the introduction of its new social network Google+ last June, the anticipation was intense throughout the search marketing industry. Would this signal the end of Facebook? Was there room for another social network, I mean, did we really need another? Whilst Google+ hasn’t brought about the demise of Facebook, it is holding its own and gradually establishing itself as a potentially major force in social media. However, many marketers are still on the fence about adding the site to their social media efforts.

Discussions continue to this day about the health and success of the network. Some do claim it to be a huge success. However others have compared the platform to failures such as Buzz. However, for SEOs, it doesn’t matter.

True; the site might not be the runaway success its founding group had hoped for. However, growth at Google+ is steadily increasing, with 250 million accounts created as of July 2012. Recently released apps for mobile devices, along with feature and functionality improvements, are attracting attention and expected to increase both membership numbers and activity rates. Though it may be a while before Google+ exceeds or meets Facebook in terms of popularity, the future is looking bright for the viability of Google+. It is a worthwhile service and one of great importance to marketers.

It’s no secret that Google wants to better integrate social signals into its algorithms to better reflect who’s ‘socially significant’. Google either doesn’t have much access to other big social networks data or if it does they’re paying a pretty penny for it. So it’s no big surprise one of the reasons many companies are investing time and effort into Google+ is the expectation that it is currently having an influence or will, in the future, on natural search results. The idea goes as more people share content on social networks it becomes a better indicator of the ‘best’ content the search engines want to return.

There have been a number of studies which suggest social signals like ‘tweets of links’ or ‘likes of a page’ are correlated with high rankings. Two well-known studies from SEOmoz and SearchMetrics are keen to point out that this correlation does not mean there is a causal relationship, i.e. pages with good social signals may not rank highly simply because of their social signals. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is the fact that Facebook ‘Likes’ have been found to correlate well with rankings despite Google having no authorized way of accessing this data, and therefore it is unlikely to be using it to determine rank. However the relationship between the two data points is still very significant and if it’s a metric which indicates ‘high quality’ it’s one the search engines will look to integrate into their algorithm. Whether this is now or the immediate future matters little if you are trying to carryout long-term sustainable campaigns.

The understanding that social signals have a healthy relationship with rankings makes the argument to invest in Google+ much stronger. We know the relationships there, and we know Google has the best access to its own social network, so it makes sense they’ll look there first when considering social signals.

Even if the social signals are perhaps not directly influencing results at the moment, there’s already a strong precedent of social signals indirectly influencing your natural search through personalisation based upon your social connections. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in the US where Google has rolled out what is known as Search Plus Your World which explicitly pulls in search results based upon who you are connected to in the social networks that Google have access to.

We can see the potential influence of Plus, but what do we do about it? First, avoid the temptation to go out and buy social signals or votes. It’s unlikely to have any impact in the short-term and in the future you’ll regret it. Large brands who have tried to actively reduce the number of people who have liked them on Facebook, as those they bought in the past, are now making their social engagement looks a little weak. If they’d stuck just to ‘real likes’ they’d have much better numbers.

In the same way not all links are created equal nor will social signals. A link from the BBC is more valuable than a link from a hobbyist’s blog. It’s sensible to assume some social signals will be more powerful than others.

Instead what I think you should be doing is understanding which pages and pieces of content you’ve produced which are being shared on social networks and do more of the same. Also use a tool like Social Crawlytics to get a sense of what assets being built by your competitors is getting picked up socially. Learn from their successes and work those findings into a content strategy.

Also in the same way you’ll assess the results of a piece of content by looking how many views it has on YouTube or views on Google Analytics you should be reporting on the number and quality of social shares. This might not be a report you present to the board but this will be data which you can act upon, and allow you to adapt your strategy accordingly.

The challenge is not how can I get my content social signals by rather how can I get content that gets social signals.