When it comes to the success of a piece of content, there are several possible metrics to evaluate. You can look at its views to determine its popularity, look at its comments to discern its level of engagement with the community, or the number of times it’s been shared on social media to determine how eager people are to spread the word about your content. But there’s another way to measure how eager people are to share your content, and that’s through the number of links pointing back to it.
Links and social shares both offer a number of benefits in addition to being good indicators of a piece’s strength, and because of that, you should strive for both. However, it’s natural to wonder—is one more valuable or important than the other?
First, it’s important to define exactly what constitutes a “link” and what constitutes a “social share.” Under the strictest definition, a social share is the act of a user reading a piece of content on your website, then clicking a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social media icon to share that piece of content on their personal profile with their friends and followers. This could also apply to pieces of content that are found on social media and subsequently shared or retweeted from there, but you’ll only get some of the benefits from this type of “social sharing.” Your priority should be the former.
When it comes to links, we’re referring to permanently built hyperlinks pointing back to the piece, and therefore, your domain. These aren’t nofollow links, and they aren’t manually built or asked for by the author. They might be used as citations in other authors’ pieces, or they might exist independently.
As an indicator of the overall “success” of your piece, links and social shares can be counted somewhat equally. A social share means a user has found your content valuable and interesting enough to share with other users, meaning that user is proud to support your brand. It represents an emotionally or socially successful piece. A link means an author or webmaster has found your content authoritative enough to be cited or referenced, which represents a more logically or scientifically successful piece. These are two different types of success, but one is not inherently more valuable than the other. Ideally, you’d win both.
Both social shares and external links have the potential to attract more direct visitors; external links can be clicked, resulting in referral traffic, and socially shared links can be clicked, resulting in social traffic. A visitor is a visitor, so in that regard, links and social shares are practically equal. In terms of numbers of new visitors, that depends entirely on who’s doing the sharing and who’s doing the linking. A social influencer with 10,000 followers is going to send a lot more traffic your way than a newbie with 10.
There’s a slight winner when it comes to how much “authoritativeness” your article is imbued with in link or share format. Social shares are easy to make, and don’t necessitate any particular reason for sharing. A user could share something out of boredom, amusement, or a genuine desire to add value to other people’s days. Links are more difficult to build and are usually indicators of greater authority. Links are only built when a site wants to give value or credit to another site. If you’re looking for factors of your article’s authoritativeness, links are your slightly more favorable option—just don’t forget that there are plenty of high-level professionals who can socially share your content for the same reasons.
We’ve already covered the fact that a social share isn’t inherently more or less valuable than a link, but what about the variance of value for each type of indicator? For example, a social share could be practically worthless if shared by someone with only a handful of followers and no influence, or potentially enormously valuable if shared by a major influencer. A link, on the other hand, could be very valuable on a high-authority source, or could actually do harm to your domain authority if it’s used on a low-authority or spam site. Because social shares have slightly less risk here and just as much potential, they get a slight edge.
When it comes to passing ranking signals that affect your search rank in Google, both social shares and links are active players. Links objectively pass more authority than social shares, but social shares are included as part of Google’s ranking algorithm. Again, the real value here is who’s doing the linking and sharing—a social share from a national brand could influence your rank more than a poorly built link, but links overall will have the advantage in the long run.
Both links and social shares are important indicators of content success and valuable additions to your inbound marketing strategy. However, one is not objectively superior to the other. Social shares are better indicators of the emotional strength of your piece and offer no risk whatsoever, while links are better indicators of the logical strength of your piece and offer greater ranking benefits overall. Try to find a balance between the two that suits your brand, and never turn down an opportunity to get more of each.
Want more information on content marketing? Head over to our comprehensive guide on content marketing here: The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy.