Web professionals' interest in search engine optimization (SEO) is matched in intensity only by the excitement surrounding social media. The end result of these two Internet marketing endeavors is nearly the same: website traffic and brand exposure - not to mention stronger customer relationships.
While SEO tends to be more technical (at least it is perceived to be so), social media optimization (SMO) leans more toward developing a process to establish quality relationships where trust and confidence are the aim. It can be argued, however, that the techniques and tactics employed in each practice are universal and interchangeable. It is difficult to deny that a tremendous opportunity for profit exists when we employ (or at least think about) common SEO best practices and apply them within our social media world.
To make the most of the current Web landscape, a formal plan is required - one that provides an understanding of the audience to which you are marketing your products and services, takes into account the quality and quantity of content you will need, and establishes measurable goals for the benefit of your business.
If the horizon from whence you work looks bleak when it comes to either SEO or SMO, fear not - you're about to rocket your website into a new stratosphere on the Internet planet. It comes down to this: SEO in a social media world provides you an opportunity to make a more meaningful impact on existing users and prospects than either practice alone, making your enterprise more genuine and providing the ability to explore channels that may have previously seemed walled, inaccessible and alien.
Most websites struggle with SEO, and it is not just the Internet mom-and-pops. SEO technology and service provider Conductor (which calls the likes of NetFlix, Progressive Insurance and other notable names as clients) released a research report (Natural Search Trends of the Fortune 500) in mid-February that detailed search visibility and optimization effectiveness of Fortune 500 companies. How did they fare? Not so well. More than half of the companies had almost no natural search visibility with their targeted keywords, defined as not ranking within the top 100 natural search results. Sound similar to your own troubles? Only two percent of the domains surveyed (those associated with the actual companies) showed a significant number of their keyword terms in the top results.
The problem is not only that these companies and others are failing in the complex world of SEO. They are now simultaneously seduced by the promise of riches, popularity and consumer endearment from participating in the social media world. The worst part for Web professionals is that regular Web users are turning a blind eye to corporate social media and its real-time nature. Online marketing firm OneUp- Web's recent eye-tracking study revealed some interesting findings about real-time and perhaps, in many respects, the impact that "social" has on search results. Of the participants in the study, 73 percent had never heard of real-time results, and only a quarter of the consumers cared for the real-time results, compared to 47 percent of the "information foragers." Couple that with recent news that social media may have peaked and you have a perfect storm that is sure to upset the balance of promotions on the World Wide Web. It's not off base to think that most consumers have no idea that social is making its way into search. The solution is to make our brands as consistent and value-added as possible - wherever consumers interact with it.
So how do we apply the SEO principles that we know work for generating competitive first-page rankings to social media, and vice-versa? In short, it comes down to how content is developed and shared.
But first it's necessary to discuss the basics of getting social with SEO. A common and damaging misconception is that SEO is separate from the marketing strategy of a business. In reality, integrating SEO into existing business practices is essential these days, and if you plan on achieving any level of success you will need a formal plan.
Just as you wouldn't get in a taxi without knowing your destination, you would not want to promote and position your website (or its underlying business) without a formal strategy. When it comes to SEO and SMO, reaching your objectives requires that as much attention be paid to the content you provide as to how the broader community will interact with it. Since it is the content that people will ultimately discover and share first, if you are publishing the wrong type of content, you will arrive at the wrong destination.
Developing content-based promotions for our current or prospective audiences requires being familiar with their behavior, those users' preferences and how they will share and publish content within their own network and among the social graph they have established. One way is to use social media monitoring software, like that provided by Radian6, to stay on top of conversations and the influencers who initiate them.
But you don't need to be a creative genius to come up with innovative ideas for content. Many top ecommerce websites rely strongly on leveraging user-generated content. Amazon.com is an excellent example. Notice how strongly they leverage user-generated product reviews and recommendations, allowing them to display unique content for nearly every product, on an ongoing basis. Somewhat similar to expert product reviews, but at the category level, are buyer's guides - informative, unique articles designed to educate potential buyers about particular product categories or industries.
What about informational and service-oriented websites? Nothing works better than an education or information section. Simply add a section to an existing website and publish unique and linkable content related to your company or the industry it serves.
You will find when creating content that its eventual success does not always rely on the quality of the content, but how it is presented - offering it to users in creative, interesting ways. For this, you will need to take the time to brainstorm. Think of ways that you could change your users' experiences that would be so interesting or helpful that others would want to link to your website, and/or share that content with their networks. For example, if your website sold pet toys, perhaps you could create a fun tool that would determine a pet's personality, display a personality analysis, and recommend toys based on that. Or, a humorous video of a pet playing with a popular toy could be embedded on a social network, sent via a Twitter update and posted on YouTube - complete with a description of the product and a link where it can be purchased, of course.
But it's not just the quality of content, it's increasingly the quantity (as well as its frequency) that matters. A study of 2,168 HubSpot customers shows businesses that published at least 5 blog articles in the last 7 days draw 6.9 times more organic search traffic and 1.12 times more referral traffic than those who don't blog at all. This finding coincides with common sense: out of large chunks of business-relevant content (one post per weekday), blog readers will likely find something engaging and proceed to learn more about a company. They might even share that content with their peers.
As important as it is that content resonates with a Web audience, it won't mean much if that content does not in some way satisfy the objectives of an enterprise. Those objectives can differ greatly per industry or by the type of site that you own or operate, but they are routinely website traffic, brand exposure, inbound link generation or actual leads and sales. While companies have historically been reliant on SEO to drive marketing or sales, social media requires a different tack. So, alternative objectives and measurements apply.
The role of SEO in a social media effort is to directly influence discovery of social communities or content via search. For example, search for a popular brand term today and it is likely you will find YouTube channels, Twitter accounts and Facebook Fan Pages on the first page of search results where negative reviews, complaints and brand squatters once ruled that real estate.
What this means is that to succeed with SEO in a social media world, we need to think long and hard about how to distribute content and create a tactical approach to user sharing. While you can foster the sharing process with tools like ShareThis or AddThis, many companies are turning to Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect to take their communities (as well as the inevitable sharing that goes on with the right content) to a different level. These solutions, while still new, are being widely adopted and present a noteworthy opportunity to shore up support within an existing network. But what about outside of your own site - how do you ensure that your message is shared across your social graph in a way that is consistent with the original meaning and intent?
Social community platform Awareness Networks launched some intriguing multi-channel publishing features on its platform which puts content directly on social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and others without the manual legwork. Often, publishers have great content to share but it needs to be managed like a corporate asset. For example, who can access certain social media channels and what kind of content can or should go there? In essence, companies looking to optimize social marketing channels face significant control issues surrounding brand image and messaging across multiple channels.
But perhaps the biggest problem with SMO is measuring the effectiveness of multiple platforms. Efforts tend to become an ROI "black hole" with no empirical data to make informed business decisions. Therefore, it's critical that businesses set a formal plan and utilize even the most basic of analytics to measure how each platform is performing. Should Twitter, for example, outperform Facebook in terms of generating traffic and increasing time-on-site, then efforts and perhaps budget should be shifted accordingly. However, this would not mean that Facebook should be abandoned. Social media is a moving target - only by watching closely will you know when it's time to step up efforts on a different channel.
One of SEO's most tried and true practices is the use of keywords to help search engines index content. And it's no different in the social media space. Profile descriptions and content, as well as updates to networks, should include keywords and phrases that are directly related to the content a user can expect to find after clicking a link, or reading the rest of the update. However, this is not to suggest that updates are to be keyword-stuffed. Remember that social media is intended to appeal to humans. That means using keywords mixed with a conversational tone to appeal to both search spiders and people. Anchor text in links must use keywords as well - both those links pointing to your website and to other social profiles.
Most popular keyword tools will provide information on what users are searching for, but why reinvent the wheel? SEMRush provides content marketers valuable insights into the keyword visibility (organic and paid) for any website. HowSociable is a useful tool to quickly gauge the social presence of a particular keyword or brand name but there are others (of varying levels) such as PostRank, Trackur, Social Mention, TechrigySM2 and even Google Alerts to understand the depth of presence for social media campaigns.
It could prove to be immensely valuable to know for what terms and content the competition is optimizing. Gathering that data (whether manually or through a service) at the start of any optimization process becomes integral not just to SEO efforts but also to SMO campaigns.
SEO's golden child is the incoming link. While one might not think of SMO as a legitimate link-building strategy, the opportunity is most certainly there. Start by linking all of your business' social profiles together, and to your website. This will help your brand dominate the search results pages for a branded search, as well as give users immediate options as to where they would like to connect with your business.
But the best opportunity for generating links is in your content. Social is built on sharing and that means sharing links. While, at this time, links originating from social profiles is not weighted heavily by search engines, that will likely change. The simple fact is that users are spending more time on social media and, as a result, obtaining more information from these sources. A bonus is that, invariably, high-quality social content will generate links to your website from outside the social world, too. You can bet that just about every blogger, PR firm and news source is plugged in to social media - and they are looking for content to publish, and to link to from their own sites.
By involving SEO insight in a social media marketing effort and vice-versa, marketers, public relations professionals and advertisers can extend the value of their promotional investment. Well-optimized social media content marketing efforts can attract new network participants via search and through social networks, and facilitate links to websites directly and indirectly. The greatest benefit marketers and advertisers enjoy by thinking SEO when starting social media campaigns is that content exists - and is shared - long after campaigns have ended.