What is Social Proof & Why Does it Matter?

What are social signals and social proof?

What exactly are social signals (aka social proof) and how exactly can they benefit you?

After being asked this question several times in recent interviews and discussions, I realized that most people either don’t know what they are, or don’t know what the point is.

In this post I’ll break down what social signals are, and why they are important.

A Real Life Analogy

Imagine you’ve just arrived in Hollywood for the first time ever and you’re looking for a great place to have dinner. You haven’t read up on any of the local hot spots and you don’t have a fancy app that will recommend a great restaurant for you. You just decided to walk down Hollywood Blvd and see what you find.

You come upon two restaurants that look pretty much identical. Restaurant A has a line out the door of people waiting to get in. Restaurant B has nobody outside the door, and you’re unable to see inside if anyone is there.

Which restaurant will you immediately perceive to be better? Of course, without any prior knowledge of either restaurant, you would assume that Restaurant A is better, or at least more popular and be more likely to want to dine there.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve just been influenced by social signals.

My Working Definition

According to Wikipedia, the definition of social proof is:

a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.

That definition works. It’s a bit complicated though and I tend to take issue with the “proof” aspect. Because let’s face it, in a marketing context (or any context for that matter) the word ‘proof’ seems like it’s meant to be conclusive. I don’t believe that to be accurate and that’s why I’ve adopted the word ‘signals’ to replace ‘proof’.

So here’s my working definition of social signals:

visible activity or actions taken by other people on a given subject.

An easy way that this idea is applied to websites or blogs are social share buttons.

social proof on sharing buttons

When you visit a website, odds are that they have incorporated some sort of social sharing button that would allow you to share the page via social networks. These buttons typically contain a numeric count on them, signifying how many times that page has been shared. This number signals the user to perceive how popular, authoritative, or relevant that page is.

It’s as simple as that. Higher numbers influence users to perceive a higher level of popularity and authority, giving more reason to trust the page.

Now, this can be seen as a superficial way of gauging authority or popularity, but it is unavoidable to say that these numbers have influence over perception. Higher social signals illicit a higher level of authority, trust, and shareability. People trust what other people have trusted, and are more likely to share something that other people have shared. Period.

Research has also been done on the effect of social signals on SEO (search engine optimization). While a lot of the data is inconclusive, studies have shown that social signals are becoming more and more of a factor.

This is one reason why I love how Google+ handles the passing of social signals with their +1 button and sharing from within the site. They make an effort to pass every share, +1, and unique comment straight to the webpages they are linked to. This is not the case with other social networks.

Additionally, with the fact that Google is now serving up personalized search results that include Google+ posts from those in your circles, SEO and social media ROI is taking on a whole new meaning. More on that soon.

Do you have a better understanding of what Social Signals are? Do you have any questions about them?

Dustin W. Stout Avatar

22 responses to “What is Social Proof & Why Does it Matter?”

  1. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Pretty much. Social proof is always evolving.

  2. Bri Avatar

    So Social Signals is a new name for what people did in 1995 with webcounters on their page, counting every time a visit occurs?

    Sort of like in 1995 a term called server-network was used and now it has been replaced by “cloud”?

  3. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Very interesting indeed Bill!

  4. Bill Cary Avatar
    Bill Cary

    I had never heard the term ‘social signal’ I happened to recall a circumstance I was in years ago: A fellow came to work with me in a grad school office. He was a pleasant guy and tried to work harmoniously. But I could never figure out why I didn’t like him.
    Now please give this your best intellectual shot:

    When I was a teen a guy two years older came into the neighbor. He was a tough Irish bully. His last name was Smith.Can you believe that years later the guy at work had Smith for a last name AND a face very similar to the bully I hated?

    Put this in the ‘social signals’ file.

  5. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Awesome Megan! You may also like an article by Kris Howes about how social signals boosted search rankings or how +1’s can directly affect SEO.

  6. Megan Cronin Avatar
    Megan Cronin

    That was really helpful! Studying for my exam on SEO and I was a bit baffled by social signals. Thanks a lot! 😀

  7. Hitesh Sahni Avatar

    Well written Dustin. Going with your restaurant analogy, how can a new restaurant in town create these social signals from scratch?

    When you start a blog or a website, you won’t get many shares or tweets. So how do you get that initial hike, which leads to even more shares and tweets?

    What is your take on that?

  8. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Yes, and in my previous response (right above your comment) I stated why I chose the word “signal” over “proof”. It’s just semantics for me– I think about word meaning way too much. lol

    And yes, I would agree with all of those other forms of signals you stated (even Klout despite the fact that I now believe their algorithm is nearly worthless. (Lots of disappointing tests.)

    And I would say that the businesses that understand social proof the best, and employ it regularly are clubs. That’s why the best clubs are known for how long the line is out the door. 😀

  9. Josue Molina Avatar
    Josue Molina

    make sense now. I was trying to get a grasp of what it meant. Thank you!

  10. Steven Fogg Avatar
    Steven Fogg

    Social signals is a great phrase Dustin, I’d probably agree with Denny that what you are saying is social proof.

    Other signs of social signals/social proof are:
    No’s of followers
    No’s of readers eg. Feedburner counters and the like
    Key endorsements by heavyweight specialists in the field of expertise
    Klout score – This ranks the level of engagement across various social networks and blogs.

    Thanks so much for this. I’m now a subscriber!

    PS I think restaurants are pretty clued in to this concept too as they always place us in the window seats 🙂

  11. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    It’s the same thing. I just prefer the term “signal” as the word “proof” gives a more finite impression.

  12. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Will do Gina! 😀

  13. denny mccorkle Avatar


    So what is the difference in social signals and social proof? HubSpot has been talking about social proof for many years.

    Denny McCorkle @DennyMcCorkle

  14. Gina Hovde Avatar
    Gina Hovde

    I appreciate the information and have a better understanding of “Social Signals”. Please continue to post information, as it is helpful to me, and I’m sure, many others.

  15. Amel Mehenaoui Avatar
    Amel Mehenaoui

    Hi Dustin, indeed I do have a resource from no other than Google itself…

    Few weeks ago Google submitted a patent and here are some highlights of the patent’s claims that are very closely related to the impact of Social Signals in SEO:

    4. The computer-implemented method of claim 3, wherein searching comments provided by the users of the social networking platform to determine if they are relevant to the news story comprises searching for one or more keywords in the comments provided by the users of the social networking platform, wherein the one or more keywords are related to the news story.

    7. The computer-implemented method of claim 3, wherein the filtering is done by filtering the comments for a specified number of most recently received comments relevant to the news story.

    8. The computer-implemented method of claim 3, wherein the filtering is done by filtering the comments by a source of the comments.

    9. The computer-implemented method of claim 8, wherein the source is a member of the user’s social networking groups.

    As it’s so evident from the just of the few highlights above…Google is looking at our social activities and including them in the Ranking Algorithm.

    You can read more details of the patent on the the page below: http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2013/0298000.html

  16. Mark Sampson Avatar
    Mark Sampson

    Great article! Although I may choose to go into the less crowded restaurant, it’s still a social signal that it’s probably quieter. Thanks

  17. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    I totally agree Debi. Not having a large amount of social signals doesn’t mean the content isn’t good, or authoritative. It just means it is still being discovered. I really like the stock market analogy!

  18. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Great perspective Amel! Do you have any resources that have conclusively tied social signals to SEO? I’m constantly on the lookout for them.

  19. Dustin W. Stout Avatar

    Thanks Manish! You rock!

  20. Debi @ DebiStangeland.com Avatar
    Debi @ DebiStangeland.com

    I would say that a really good way to look at this is by thinking of “social signals” as currency. They way we perceive a blog or a website is based on this idea of influence but that influence is taking on more of a currency feel to it. When you have a lot of +1s, comments and shares, its like $$ in your account and people notice that. And you then can convert that into benefit. (saying you can buy something with it sounds too crass)

    But there is also a stock market, so to speak, there is a part that other people cannot see and that is the value of the interactions you are having. I would say that I have a lot of stock build up in new bloggers who ask me questions on G+ and FB and interact with me a lot, but are not savvy enough yet to share or +1 my content. I have this long-term account that one day will pay off, but it isn’t visible right now.

    It’s like having a neighbor who drives an old beater but is investing behind the scenes and then one day retires to the Bahamas. Who knew? Or the restaurant analogy, maybe restaurant B is relatively new and looks empty but they do a ton of catering to things like the Oscars or the Golden Globes, one day soon that stock is going to pay off with customers – and the good ones too, who know how great their food is because they actually ate it at the Grammys. That currency is gold!! Would you agree?

  21. Amel Mehenaoui Avatar

    Here is my understanding of social signals from an SEO perspective:

    As backlinks are important ranking factore for SEO, I believe Social Signals are like “eSocial Reputation” ranking factors that passes the eSocial Reputation juice back to our personal social profile (think Author Rank) and thus our web property.

    Social Signals are very important in SEO and we should cultivate them as much as possible in Top Social Hub Networks like Google+, Twitter etc.

    “For Smart & Ethical SEO” Amel.

  22. manish kumar Avatar
    manish kumar

    Just Awesome :)) thanks for all the detailed info! #YouRock

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