The age-old question – how can social media benefit my SEO? – shows no sign of going away and, indeed, appears to be a hotter topic than ever (its popularity probably increasing as the disciplines of organic search and social marketing become ever more intertwined). Historically, the answer to this question would have been short and simple: social media – at least, links posted on social media – has no positive impact on your website’s SEO value. This is because of a little tag called ‘nofollow’, which prevents authority being passed forward and is attached to all links posted on the major social networks (who want to preserve their own value by stopping it being given away through the billions of links they host).
In recent years, however, search engines – particularly Google, through which nine out of ten searches are made in the UK – have found themselves unable to ignore the growth of social networks as powerful word of mouth referral systems. So many people use the likes of Twitter and Facebook to share links with friends and peers that continuing to exclude them from their reckoning (especially Google, which looks as links as being like ‘votes’ or recommendations for a website – even more applicable a concept in the context of social media) was no longer a viable option for search engines. This led to a slight shift in stance and concession from the likes of Matt Cutts, distinguished engineer at Google, that social ‘signals’ do now play a small part in the organic ranking algorithm. Thanks to the presence of that ‘nofollow’ tag, the direct influence remains small – some experts suggest the factors relating to social amount to no more than one per cent of the total algorithm used to rank sites in search results. For this reason, the advice is that you should never do social for the sake of search, but always for its own uses and benefits.
Despite the technical barriers to social media being a quick and scalable route to generating inbound links, creative marketers have in the past few years found a way to not just incorporate but get the best use out of social networks for the purpose of acquiring links. In the post-Penguin landscape, your ability to get people to link to your website rests more than ever on the quality of your content and how unique, fresh, informative and useful your company’s communications are. So the first step in earning links is to produce content – whether that’s written text, videos, photographs, animations – that people deem worthy of being linked to. Merely producing interesting content, however, might not be enough. You could spend all day reciting the world’s funniest joke over and over, but if there’s no one there to hear it, no one is going to laugh (and also that would be quite strange – surely you must have better things to do than stand around on your own repeatedly telling the same joke). For that reason, the second – vital – step in earning links is to raise awareness of your content, with one valuable route to that being through social media.
Creative content marketers nowadays use social media as a way of getting their content in front of the most relevant audiences, which can ultimately end up with their websites generating actual, traditional, SEO-beneficial inbound links from new found advocates. To get to that point, you have to use social networks in the way they are intended, building up a genuine network of relevant followers, people interested in your industry and potentially in your business. Having spent time cultivating this network, you can distribute content among it, which, if engaging enough, will be re-shared by your followers, expanding its reach to thousands more people each time. From there, one of the people who has seen and engaged with your content needs only to blog about it on their own website and link to yours for you to get back that SEO value you’d miss from a Twitter or Facebook link. This approach really works, too: we produced and shared via Twitter an infographic on behalf of one of our clients and ended up generating more than 7,000 page views – plus press coverage from the BBC among others – as a result.
Of course, taking this approach to earning links requires a complete understanding of your audience and their interests. There’s no point – not least because you’re unlikely to generate much uptake – in distributing the wrong content, or, perhaps worse, the right content to the wrong people. Background research should be a precursor to any social-based content marketing campaign. One simple way of better understanding your audience is to ask them, either through customer focus groups or interviews, what questions they have about your industry and business and what topics they are interested in reading about. This will help you to produce a content marketing campaign of real interest and relevance to your audience, increasing the chance of it being picked up through social channels and generating inbound links for your website.
One other area which requires a detailed understanding of your audience, and which crosses over with search marketing (in this case, its PPC strand) is paid social advertising. Here, the negative impact of not properly targeting your activity can be worse than just having content fall on deaf ears. With cost-per-click/engagement models similar to paid search advertising, everything shown to and potentially clicked by the wrong audience members is a waste of money. Happily, targeting your paid social ads is in many ways more straightforward than doing the same with your organic content. The likes of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn give you the ability to easily define audiences to who you’d like to show ads, based on parameters such as location, age, gender (even job role and seniority in the case of LinkedIn) and so on. One of the biggest pitfalls in paid social advertising is in not being careful enough with this targeting, for example, showing ads to users who fall outside the geographical reach of your business, which can result in wasted costs being incurred. Having a clear picture of your target market and using all the targeting options offered to you by the social networks’ ad platforms should see you avoid that scenario.
All of which is not to say that social advertising cannot tell you anything new about your audience, or help you discover new potential customers. One example of this would be another client of ours, who, previous results showed, had a core customer base of males aged 18 to 25. When this data was applied to a Facebook ad campaign targeting that demographic, the results were not as expected (very few conversions were achieved from the targeting). However, testing showed the campaign did convert very well among women aged 35 to 45, a previously untapped target audience for the business. This was made the main focus of the campaign and the results rocketed. Meanwhile, Twitter ads – whose self-serve platform is a recent addition to the paid social ad toolkit – provide a very useful means of discovering new followers for your brand, without necessarily having first to specify exactly who they are. One of the cool things you can do with the platform is set your ads to be shown to followers of other people and businesses. These may be market leaders in your industry, journalists or key consumer advocates and by putting your adverts in front of their followers you are giving yourself access to a potentially huge new audience, with the added benefit that you’ll only pay money for those who follow your business, retweet your ad or otherwise engage with it.
Whether you’re conducting paid or organic marketing through social media, success will rely on you having an accurate understanding of your audience and using that to produce content that will be of real interest to them, then distributing/targeting it in such a way as to maximise its visibility to potential advocates and, ultimately, customers. While social media can cross over with SEO and PPC campaigns and be useful to both, any marketing you carry out through social networks should be done not for the sake of search, but always for its own unique uses and benefits.