What are social share buttons really counting?

Every article online these days will sport the web-doohickey du jour,  social sharing buttons. Their purpose, ostensibly, is to let readers share that piece of content easily on their social network of choice – but they’re increasingly used in Internet dick-measuring contests to boast about ‘share counts’. However not all shares are equal.

Each social network has its own features and actions, some of which contribute to share counts, some of which don’t. The share counts for this very article on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn are mostly likely over to the left of this text. Outwardly this would appear to show, quite logically, the number of times this piece has been shared… but it’s not quite that simple. Here are some handy tables explaining which actions on the “big four” networks contribute to each social share count.

Twitter

Action

Effect on share count

Tweet a link +1
Manually Retweet a link +1
Retweet a link +1
Favourite a link 0
Reply to a link 0
Favourite a reply to a link 0
Retweet a reply to a link 0

Facebook

Action

Effect on share count

Share a link +1
Like a link +1
Reply to a link +1
Like a reply to a link 0
Recommend a link +1
Reshare a link +1
Reply to a reshared link +1
Like a reshared link +1
Like a reply to a reshared link 0
Share a link in a private message *see below +1

Updated 3/1/14 to add in details of private message sharing – apparently Facebook use that in their counts too (although I’ve not tested it myself).

Google+

Action

Effect on share count

+1 +1 (obviously)
Share a link +1
+1 a shared link +1
Reshare a link +1
+1 a reshared link +1 (Unless already +1′d)
Comment on a shared link +1 (Limited to once per user)
+1 a comment 0

LinkedIn

Action

Effect on share count

Share a link +1
Like a link 0
Reply to a shared link 0
Reshare a link +1
Like a reshared link 0

Disclaimer: This is all based on my own testing – let me know if you’re seeing different counts.

You can see from these tables that Facebook has the most laissez faire policy when it comes to boosting share counts, while LinkedIn is the strictest.

An important quirk to consider is that on all networks, a single user can contribute multiple points to the share count.

This is especially troublesome on Facebook, where a user can share their content privately (using the “Only me” option), and add comments ad infinitum to artificially inflate their count. Twitter counts multiple tweets from the same user – although given how content is promoted on Twitter this makes perfect sense. Google+’s policy of capping an individual’s ability juice their +1s seems a sensible policy. LinkedIn’s is perhaps the most puritanical approach – you get a point for a share, and nothing more (although you can still share your stuff multiple times).

Perception

The main problem with this system, as I see it, is that Facebook mixes both the most freewheeling counting method with an emotive call to action (“Like”) – controversial articles will often pick up large Like counts from people commenting on sharing activity, many of whom will most likely not agree with the content at all. These users are commenting to express negative sentiment, but are inadvertently contributing to the popularity implied by a large Like count.

A Facebook argument between two people that runs and runs could add 50, or even 100 Likes to an article’s count, even though those two users may be the only people to ever read it.

So next time you see a controversial article with a Like count in the tens of thousands, just remember there’s a good likelihood that a large proportion of that number actually don’t “Like” it at all.

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